City of Enumclaw to appeal Welcome Center debt

Plans for an Enumclaw Welcome Center were formally snuffed out last week by a 4-3 vote of the City Council, but questions surrounding a debt of more than a half-million dollars linger.

The idea for a Welcome Center floated on the periphery of city government for 14 years, taking different shapes as it was addressed by three different mayors and several roster turnovers of the seven-member council. During that time money was spent and now – with plans officially scrapped – it appears on the surface that expended grant money will need to be repaid.

A total of $582,000 in federal money was spent on planning and design work. And the city, which is already digging into reserve funds to remain financially afloat during 2014, may need to pay back every penny.

But there might be a glimmer of hope, according to City Administrator Chris Searcy. He said there’s an appeal process the city intends to investigate, with the hope of having the debt forgiven. At the heart of the argument would be the fact that a number of factors conspired to alter the Welcome Center from its original design and intent.

Resolving the debt question will be an immediate priority, Searcy said.

In a worst-case scenario, the city will be on the hook for the entire $582,000.

If it turns out that sum needs to be repaid, there’s $338,000 already appropriated in this year’s municipal budget, earmarked for Welcome Center construction. That money could be transferred to satisfy the debt to the federal government, Searcy said, reducing the unpaid amount to $244,000. The city also maintains a “rainy day” fund that could be dipped into, Searcy said.

The final Welcome Center debate

The council chose the latter of its two options with Chance LaFleur, Jim Hogan, Mike Sando and Hoke Overland casting the votes that closed the curtain on the Welcome Center. Voting to make more than a million city dollars available and keeping the project alive were Morgan Irwin, Darrel Dickson and Juanita Carstens.

LaFleur was the first to speak on the 28th, making his feelings very clear.

“Just because we spend a lot of years on a project, that doesn’t mean it’s a good project,” he said. He emphasized the city has myriad needs and, in his view, other items climb higher on the priority list.

“A new Welcome Center, to me, it’s a luxury, not a necessity,” LaFleur said, pointing out that construction would deplete most of the city budget’s Fund 180. That pot of money, now totaling about $1.5 million, is limited to capital improvements and land acquisition. That fund should be protected, he argued, in case an emergency hits.

LaFleur also expressed concerns over the Forest Service’s commitment to being a tenant in the building. At one time, the agency was to be a full partner, but that arrangement fell apart, he reminded.

Hogan went next, shifting course from his earlier votes. The longest-serving member of the council, Hogan had voted in support of the Welcome Center every time it came up during his 11-year run on council.

But it was a different story on July 28.

“This was a good project (but) it was conceived in another time,” Hogan said. In earlier days there were guaranteed tenants and plans for a multi-service center, he added, noting that revenue streams were healthier when the Welcome Center was a bright and shiny dream.

Since then, “we’ve done some incredible belt-tightening as a city,” Hogan said, referring to the recession that forced layoffs and curtailed certain operations. He spoke of budget constraints that continue to plague city operations like public safety.

“We’ve got an empty police car sitting out there because we don’t have an officer to fill it,” Hogan concluded. “Things like that are more important than a Welcome Center.”

Irwin argued on behalf of the Welcome Center, stressing that such a facility would best serve the city’s long-term goals.

He urged his fellow council members to avoid looking at just a two- or three-year window. “This is the sort of legacy project that’s important for the structure and the moral fiber of our community,” he said.

Irwin also took a practical turn, noting that a Welcome Center might be the best way to assure the Forest Service maintains a presence in Enumclaw, keeping jobs in the community.

Dickson admitted to some hesitance when it comes to allocating more than $1 million. “However, I don’t feel comfortable paying back 582,000 and not having anything,” he said.

“In my world, with real estate, when you get committed to a deal you find a way to do it.”

LaFleur continued as the strongest voice against further involvement in the Welcome Center, noting that the council has an obligation to assure the city provides certain core services for its residents. Building a Welcome Center, he said, is not among those services.

He also countered Irwin’s concern, stating that the Forest Service is still here. Agency employees, he said, “are not packing up their trucks expressing his admiration for the Forest Service, LaFleur recalled that the agency initially had an equal stake in the project.

“We had a partner and that partner is leaving us holding the bag,” he said. Unless the Forest Service steps forward with a signed contract, he said, “I’m not going to bank on anything.”

Dickson took one last shot at rallying support for the center.

The city requires growth to stay healthy, he said, adding that the halcyon days of logging and dairy farming are long gone. The city’s future is tied to Mount Rainier and the tourist industry, Dickson said, making his case for the Welcome Center.

“if we’re not this,” he asked, “what are we going to become?”