A resolution for a public advisory vote on the Gateway Center in Aberdeen stalled at this morning’s special meeting/workshop of the Grays Harbor County Commissioners. Presented by Commissioner Wes Cormier, the resolution centered on asking the public whether or not the county should “own and operate the Gateway Enterprise and Visitor Information Center.”
The resolution did not advance. Timing and who might own what, when were issues.
Brought forward by Commissioner Wes Cormier, the advisory vote hit the radar about three weeks ago. It was to be revisited at the next county commissioner special meeting/workshop, originally calendared for February 7. That meeting was moved back to February 9 earlier this week.
If passed, today’s resolution would have authorized “the Grays Harbor county Auditor to place on the August 2017, special election ballot for an advisory vote regarding the Gateway Enterprise Center.” When distributing the resolution for discussion this morning, Commissioner Cormier said the commissioners were “welcome to change” the language. Here’s the text of the document:
WHEREAS, the County is asset rich and money poor; and
WHEREAS, Grays Harbor County has encountered a severe budget crisis due to long-term financial issues exacerbated by severe current economic conditions; and
WHEREAS, the Board believes that the public should have a voice in whether the county should own and operate the Gateway Enterprise Center located on the City of Aberdeen property; and
NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the Board of County Commissioners hereby directs the Grays Harbor County Auditor to place on the August 2017, Special Election Ballot the following advisory question for the voter’s consideration:
GATEWAY ENTERPRISE & VISITOR INFORMATION CENTER
Should Grays Harbor County own and operate the Gateway Enterprise and Visitor Information Center, located on City of Aberdeen property? Should this proposition be:
APPROVED _____ REJECTED _____
Most of the subsequent discussion, which was cordial, took place between Commissioners Wes Cormier and Vickie Raines. A major issue was possible county ownership and operation of the Center.
Raines expressed support for the Center but had reservations about county ownership. “I’m not so sure the county should own it,” she said. “As far as participation, I think strong consideration should be given to the county having a tourism kiosk or a person in there.” She added that the county’s involvement, other than some economic development support, would be an area in the facility for the county to promote tourism.
Commissioner Randy Ross noted that there are “a lot of stakeholders involved” in the Gateway project. He said he wasn’t sure “how it will shake out.”
Referring to last summer’s purchase of the Byles building in Montesano by the county, Raines noted that Cormier opposed the buy. She said that if the question of purchasing the Byles property was posed today, “I wouldn’t buy it.”
Referring to who might be responsible for what and how, per the Gateway Center, Raines said there’s “not enough information available (yet)” (on what might be involved in the operation of the facility).
There was some difference of opinion on whether or not the City of Aberdeen has formally asked the county to operate the Gateway facility. Raines said, “I don’t think we’ve been asked to operate it.”
Tapping Tourism Funds?
Cormier said he thinks the City of Aberdeen wants the county to own the building in order “to tap into the tourism fund.” He said, “Other entities have discussed using tourism dollars” per the Center. Cormier expressed concerns about the county using tourism dollars to operate a facility. “That makes me nervous,” he said.
Commissioner Raines agreed, but said that question hadn’t been posed to her. She said “initial conversations” focused on the possibility of the county owning the property, managed by the Council of Governments, Greater Grays Harbor or another entity. In this scenario, Raines noted, “The county would have to assume it debt-free.”
Cormier said he “doesn’t see any harm” in giving citizens the opportunity to weigh in on possible county ownership/operation of the Center. Raines said that move may be “premature.”
Setting a Precedent?
Commissioner Randy Ross expressed concerns about “setting a precedent” by placing the matter on the ballot. Citing the Byles property buy, Ross asked rhetorically if that purchase should’ve been placed on the ballot as well? He didn’t think citizens should necessarily weigh in on every like project. “Well, what are we (the commissioners) here for?” Ross asked. “Whether the county should own it, that’s a decision we should make.”
Raines indicated that county ownership of the building might provide “more leverage” in terms of getting money for the project from the state legislature.
Cormier wondered who buys land and then decides later on who owns the building? He said those questions/issues should be ironed out “long before a municipality buys a property.” He added, “I don’t want the county involved,” reiterating his desire to offer the public the chance to weigh in.
Raines responded, “How do you consider an advisory vote to be valid if the public isn’t educated on the topic?” She said there hasn’t been a formal request from Aberdeen for the county to own the building. Cormier said prior conversations with Aberdeen Mayor Erik Larson indicated otherwise. He added that he did a public records request on the project and read “2,000 emails from start to finish on the project.” Saying it “has now morphed into a county project,” Cormier said he thinks the City of Aberdeen “wants to sell it as a county project.”
Raines noted that the Center is to be located in Aberdeen, “but it would benefit all of Grays Harbor. I know your opposition to it,” she said to Cormier. “That’s fine.”
Cormier explained that his opposition is to county ownership of the building. The question of liability related to possible county ownership was posed by other meeting attendees.
Regarding placing the question on the August ballot, Raines suggested the commissioners “wait to postpone this” until they get “an ask from the City of Aberdeen.” She concluded, “I think it’s too early,” saying she doesn’t think it’s anything to move forward at this time.”
Bottom line: There was no forward movement on an advisory vote on the Gateway Center today. A future date for a possible revisit was not discussed.
It’s February. Let’s see how this plays out. Meanwhile, what say you?