Enumclaw Welcome Center a twisted tale | Rich Elfers

Enumclaw City Administrator Chris Searcy recalled in his May 27, 2014, staff report that it was the year 2000 when state Route 410 from Enumclaw over Chinook Pass to Naches was designated as an “All American Road.” The name of that section of highway eventually became the Chinook Scenic Byway.

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  • Wednesday, July 16, 2014 12:41am
  • Opinion

Enumclaw City Administrator Chris Searcy recalled in his May 27, 2014, staff report that it was the year 2000 when state Route 410 from Enumclaw over Chinook Pass to Naches was designated as an “All American Road.” The name of that section of highway eventually became the Chinook Scenic Byway.

As part of the Scenic Byway designation, a corridor management guidebook was created. A Welcome Center/Gateway Interpretive Center was planned at the western side of that byway on Enumclaw’s eastern edge.

Congresswoman Jennifer Dunn helped the city obtain a grant for a feasibility study. Due to this grant, OTAK, a consulting firm, was hired, and a Welcome Center Committee was created in 2001. They finished their study in February 2002.

Grants were obtained with the help of Congressman Dave Reichert for $3,883,994 from the federal government.

There were several provisions from that study; the most pertinent  were:

• A long-term workspace for the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park System and the Enumclaw Chamber of Commerce.

• A facility that included “state-of-the-art interactive technology for the visitor” – in other words, an interpretive center.

• “Meets the needs of all the interested parties and builds ownership with the local community.”

The cost for this 7,000 square foot facility was to be $5.7 million with $1.1 million set aside to buy the property east of McDonald’s and Taco Time. This amount was reduced to $4.6 million when the city offered city land adjacent to the fieldhouse in April 2007.  This cut expenses, but in order to avoid “excessive costs and process permitting” from King County, the project was put on hold until the city annexed the property in April 2009.

Meanwhile, two more snags occurred in September 2008 when it was discovered that the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression had built the stone steps up to the baseball field and therefore were federally designated as historic. They couldn’t be destroyed. Added to this blow came another with the announcement that the Washington State Department of Transportation would not allow the second floor to be covered by the federal grants.

Fixing the first problem took until January 2013 when the building design was altered to preserve the steps and the park. By this time the city had spent $587,000.

The second problem was “solved” when the USFS thought they had found a way to “own” the second floor, but this option ended in May 2014 when the USFS withdrew because, “They determined that they did not have the authority to do this.” Also, their staff was cut from 30 to seven, which meant there would be no need for 3,500 square feet of the second story building to operate.

The city also lost one of the federal grants to the tune of $674,080 in September 2012, due to the lapsing of the time requirement. As a result of these two events, the interpretive center was cut.

The administration has worked for four and a half years to try to make the Welcome Center a reality; but with these complications and with the Sept. 30, 2014, drop-dead date for the 2004 Scenic Byway Discretionary Program grant of nearly $1.3 million, it recommended to the City Council that work on the project cease.

The Council, faced with the possibility that the city would have to pay back $587,000 from the grants ($320,000 had already been set aside), decided to do more study, costing an additional $60,000 to update to the current building code requirements by Aug. 1, 2014.

With the city controlling and owning the whole building, it will take $1.3 million from city reserves to meet the Sept. 30 deadline, leaving about $800,000 in reserves for emergencies.

The young, inexperienced Council is faced with a very difficult decision: Should it give up approximately $3.3 million in grants, and perhaps be forced to repay $587,000 already spent to the Federal government, or should it spend $1.3 million to get a building that has no guaranteed renters, no interpretive center, no Chamber of Commerce (they backed out a few years ago) on the hopes that, “Build it and they will come.”? Additionally, none of the original 2002 recommendations for building the Welcome Center noted above would be met.  Or is there a third alternative not yet considered?

As it looks now, if the Welcome Center is constructed adjacent to the Fieldhouse, it would cost the city additional money to staff it, taking away money from other city needs like road repair.

I’m grateful for the risks the new Council is willing to take; I like their spunk. They have to make some tough choices in the next few weeks, deciding what is in the best, long-term interest of their constituents. Citizens of Enumclaw, this is your city and your tax money; what do you think they should do?

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