Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Bellingham & Whatcom County Public Facilities District: Redux

With the recent ground-breaking for the new Art & Children's Museum, a major milestone was reached that was only a dream 5 years ago. The Public Facilities District, then envisioned -and willingly supported by Whatcom County- as an economic magnet, was being hotly debated and even opposed by some in our community. Somehow the idea of getting some of our tax money back to help finance the PFD got all fuzzed up by a few opponents as an unnecessary exercise and expense. Others insisted these funds be used to finance much needed improvements to the Civic Field Complex, which have subsequently been accomplished using other funding mechanisms. Suffice to say, the PFD was created, its financing secured, a prudent, yet visionary Board established, and the monies available used to best effect. A success story by any standard!

Back in those days, the Cascadia Weekly was the Every Other Weekly, and it's popular editorial column was called 'The Skinny'. That name inspired me to write the following blurb: [Does this theme REMIND readers of other undertakings?]
PFD Project: Skinny or Scuttlebutt?

From my Navy days, I learned first hand about the terms "skinny" and "scuttlebutt". Skinny had the connotation of correct information, or poop, as in 'straight skinny'. Scuttlebutt was a phrase used to describe gossip around the water cooler, and every ship had at least one 'biomass' artist whose mission in life it was to create rumors and misinformation. Many things change over time, but the meanings of 'skinny' & 'scuttlebutt' seem to remain the same. With this in mind, it's interesting to focus on some of the criticisms that are now circulating about our newly established Public Facilities District, and what its mission and initial project undertaking should be.

Perhaps adding another minnow of perspective to the swirling fishbowl of created -and very creative- public perceptions is in order. While this particular minnow is not expected to survive for long amongst the various piranha, sharks, jellyfish, blowfish and slippery eels that flourish in such environs, perhaps its DNA message can then bio-accumulate in the genes of these respective species.

Perhaps, an evolutionary process is needed to eventually allow a more balanced assessment of the merits of the PFD actions to date, the sole purpose of which is to stimulate and stabilize economic redevelopment in our downtown - an area already recognized as a priority for revitalization. Using this restricted, returned tax money to turn the Mt Baker Theater into something more useful and revenue generating, by expanding its usable space, upgrading its antiquated electrical and mechanical systems, and preserving its unusually attractive historic character, seems a very prudent investment indeed! It should also help provide the foundation to stimulate additional private investment downtown, while also meeting the stringent, enabling state law requirements regarding purpose, scope and timing.

As with many situations, the roots of the current controversy spring from seeds sown in the past, and these sometimes grow more like weeds, than the gardens that people actually enjoy. Given the challenging circumstances our local governments face, one would think such a gift of returned taxes to our area for its own beneficial use is an event to celebrate!

Instead, a cacophony of interests, discovering yet another issue with cheap entertainment value, are engaging in the right of 'public process'!
o Habitual nay-sayers are again taking full advantage of an election year to frenetically spread their anti-government, anti-spending misinformation.
o At least two special interest groups have surfaced with competing ideas.
o Others are simply joining the fun with instant, armchair quarterback solutions.
o Most are probably just watching and waiting for the PFD's selected project to begin, finish and deliver its expected results.

Fair enough, that all these voices should heard, and that from the resulting discourse will come some truly excellent and enduring concepts that can be used to improve whatever project proceeds. 
But, it's a pity that so much of what the public hears about is based upon data-free analysis, speculation, disguised ideology and conspiracy theories - in other words, scuttlebutt!
In today's world, that seems to be expected. To be hoped for are commentators who are willing to keep an open mind until the real facts can be triangulated and the overall situation put into truer perspective. In the meantime, the work of the PFD must proceed.

The PFD considers getting on with its project important, enough to require undertaking a satisfactory resolution of it without further undue delay. It is clearly the PFD's duty and responsibility to get a qualifying project approved and underway before yearend. The City Council has determined that the approach the PFD is following now is a sensible one, arrived at only after obtaining expert advice and significant public input on various options. Both PFD and Council have listened to many ideas and different views on how to proceed from diverse interests before selecting the course of action now being pursued. While it is clearly impossible to please everyone, we do care about the public's ultimate satisfaction in what these revitalization efforts will produce. Over time, the wisdom of the decisions made regarding the PFD's Mt Baker Theater project will manifest, and citizens will enjoy the tangible benefits of a mutually beneficial public/private partnership, which will in turn stimulate additional investment and enjoyment of our downtown area.

Sometimes, it's hard to see the forest for the trees in such situations. In the end, actions that result from broader views are usually the ones that build communities that thrive. It is to be hoped the PFD's Project and the experience gained in making it happen will become a model for future successes in downtown Bellingham, and will fully justify our substantial investment in time, energy and resources. Time will tell, but will citizens remember the Skinny or the Scuttlebutt?

For yet another perspective back in time, here is an article I had published circa March 2003:
The Bellingham & Whatcom County Public Facilities District: A Good Idea, Enabled by Our State Legislature

The Bellingham & Whatcom County Public Facilities District [PFD] is the product of over three years of creative thinking, planning and working with the State Legislature to gain the necessary approvals. Initially, PFDs were limited to just a few very large projects in major metropolitan areas, like Safeco Field in Seattle. When several other cities recognized the potential for PFDs within their jurisdictions, a successful lobbying effort was launched. This resulted in Bellingham and Whatcom County also being qualified -late last year- to participate in this program and together began receiving about $750,000 per year for this specific purpose. This annual amount, by itself, is sufficient to pay for a bond issue worth between $13 and $15 million dollars.

Conceived as a method of financing ‘centers of regional significance’ for communities - using tax dollars already paid to the State – PFD funds are given back to a community specifically for its discretionary use to help finance projects costing a minimum of $10 million dollars. But there are also strings attached which require that certain ‘who, what, where, how and why’ questions be answered before the funds can be used. Three categories of allowed uses are cultural facilities, convention centers and sports complexes, all of which are to be considered as point destinations for citizens, patrons, tourists and other participants.

In enabling PFDs the Legislature recognized that such ‘centers of regional significance’ are magnets for attracting economic development to benefit those communities which use PFD funds wisely and provide the required resource match. Typically, projects like these centers are difficult to achieve and require significant vision, planning and investment to complete them.

Bellingham is truly fortunate to already have had the experience of so much visioning and planning focused on the revitalization of its downtown. This has helped guide the choices in spending PFD money to those that are most cost effective and synergistically efficient. Recently, the PFD Board has also seen the wisdom of focusing its first attention on creating space where facilities of lasting value can be developed in the downtown area.

What will actually be built in the space the PFD will ultimately provide has yet to be determined with any finality or timetable, because much depends upon other sources of funding and matching resources becoming available – both public and private. But, the area of current PFD focus is in the vicinity of both City Hall and the County Courthouse, both of which badly need parking space for those conducting business with our local governments, as well as government employees.

What else is in this vicinity that might benefit, directly or indirectly, from space provided by the PFD? Three public facilities, including the Bellingham Public Library, The Whatcom Museum and the Mt. Baker Theater, could all benefit from PFD-owned space downtown. All three facilities are supported by local tax dollars and are very popular with families and children, including tourists. Recognizing this, the PFD has already moved to acquire additional space to allow the Mt. Baker Theater more much-needed room to accommodate its various shows and programs.

Both the Library and the Museum are also in need of more useable space to keep up with growth demands. The Library is currently ‘maxed’ out and will likely require a new facility soon that will depend upon a separate, publicly voted bond levy. Depending upon the site selected and other factors, a bond of approximately $14 million will be needed to finance a new Library. The Museum is in critical need of seismic upgrading and climate control improvements, in addition to more exhibit space, to both protect and display its valuable collections.

How can these existing facilities and needs be combined to use the PFD funds most wisely? That is the question that the PFD is currently seeking to answer, and the possible combinations are many and varied. However, all potential combinations do share the same set of facilities and needs, which helps form a firmer matrix in which the final concepts and scenarios can begin to take shape.

Whatever concept ultimately evolves from these efforts will earn the title of “Centennial Project”, and bring Bellingham and Whatcom County the desired benefits of additional economic development, education and entertainment opportunities.