Monday, September 3, 2007

Civic Field Sports Complex: A Bellingham Success Story

Well-used Civic Field has seen some needed changes in the last few years, in response to citizens demand. But, these changes have tended to happen in fits and starts, while overcoming inertia and the pull for resources toward other priorities.

The stadium used for football, soccer and track may be the most efficient use of public resources anywhere of its kind. How many facilities are shared by three High Schools and a College that you know about? That used to be more of a scheduling and logistics problem than it is now.

With the replacement of natural turf with an artificial playing surface a few years ago, the use of this field has increased by a factor of six times! That kind of efficiency not only allowed more games per week but exposed some other improvements that had become sorely needed over time.
That is the subject of an old Guest editorial re-printed further below, for which I played Devil's Advocate.

But the Civic Complex is more than just the football field & track, it includes the dressing rooms, restrooms, ADA ramps, lighting, new roof, scoreboard and parking associated with its use.

That doesn't include Joe Martin Field [Baseball], which is now being renovated;

Or, the Sportsplex [Public/Private partnership 80,000 sf indoor ice rink and soccer practice facility] built by a private entity, then sold to the City, and resold to the Whatcom Sports Association, who now effiently operates it 7 days a week;

Or, the popular Arne Hanna Aquatic Center that required so many years to get built;

Or, the four lighted Geri Fields for softball;

Or the amazing Skateboard Park, and bike jumps, recently expanded;

Or the practice field;

Or, the Open Space;

Or, the Trails.

You get the idea, this is a place where many people of all ages go frequently. A well conceived and heavily used complex that typifies one of the best investments a community can make for its citizens.

Taken for granted is the foresight that earlier City leaders had in setting aside this large piece of centrally located property for this purpose. We owe those folks a large debt of thanks!

But, that's not the end of this story.

Now that more people are using this Complex, they are arriving more frequently by walking, biking and bus. That means providing safer routes is important, so with this in mind, the following has been approved:

• lighted, pedestrian activated cross-walk over Lakeway Drive
• Puget Street extended to Fraser Street; Fraser Street extended east to Woburn
• Sidewalks and bike lanes added to both Puget and Fraser Street [in 3 phases]
• The nearby Whatcom Creek Trail will connect Lake Whatcom with Downtown, using a new bridge at Racine Street

And to help protect Whatcom Creek and its aquatic species:

• A Salmon restoration area has been established nearby to maintain natural vegetation and shallow meanders that are important for fish habitat.
• A large, naturally vegetated area was acquired to provide stormwater filtration, following the Olympic Pipe Line Explosion, using settlement monies designated for that purpose.

This has turned out to be a longer story than intended, but maybe some folks will enjoy learning more about Civic Field that people often take for granted. Sometimes, I've found that visitors to a place may know more about it than many locals do.
Civic Field is a story we should be proud to share!

A Guest Editorial: Circa October 2000
Note: This bond measure very narrowly failed at the ballot, but subsequently, multiple funding sources were found to accomplish most of its objectives.
Civic Field Complex – A Great Idea Before Its Time?

Everything I’ve heard about this proposed project resonates as a great idea!
It’s something that makes sense because it enhances and provides necessary refurbishing to a well-used public facility uses voluntary citizen involvement (and money) and should become a ballot issue. Why then would anyone dare speak against this great idea?

Two reasons immediately come to mind; TIMING and PUBLIC EQUITY.

TIMING: Taken separately, this issue would likely be a slam-dunk at the polls. But, competing for public dollars with other pressing needs this year, [which could cost citizens substantially if proposed tax increases, bond issues and additional utility rates are passed] this measure may have more difficulty than anticipated because of its rushed timing. Although such a “competition” was probably not the goal of Civic Complex supporters, this proposition will compete directly with the new Fire Station, which is already recognized as a top public safety priority this year. This type of ballot competition is a disservice to both measures, and could have been avoided had better planning and discipline been followed.

On the matter of planning, the City’s 1999 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) stated: “The City’s Capital Facilities Citizen’s Task Force established capital spending priorities for the City and recommended appropriate funding mechanisms to accomplish the projects.” This Citizen's Task Force (CPPC) held 17 public meetings last year with its 19 citizen members, three Council members and City staff. The Task Force’s prioritization and initial funding recommendations for the City’s 53 identified, un-funded projects [totaling $137 million] DID NOT INCLUDE this $10 million Civic Field Complex Project, except for certain repair elements.

The CPPC exercise was the first time Bellingham has undertaken to plan 20 years into the future; typically the Comprehensive Plan is for only a 5-year period. CPPC undertook this task with the expectation it would provide a useful tool by which a measure of fiscal responsibility could be applied to the City’s anticipated capital project planning and prioritization process. The ultimate objective is to be able to fund, and build first, those projects most needed by the community and capable of financing, taking care to preserve the City's current favorable credit rating. The financial burden on citizens and businesses is always a major consideration, as is an equitable allocation of costs. The resulting CPPC recommendations have substantial long-term implications, which should help Bellingham plan for its future in a more orderly and fiscally responsible manner. But, the City must have the discipline to USE the tools being developed for them to be truly useful!

A better idea might have been to use the Civic Field Complex concept proposal as a Master Plan, to be phased in over time. After all, good ideas today often remain good ideas tomorrow. How many other projects –short of emergencies- enjoy such instant success without taking their turn in the planning process? Voters always have the right to decide the fate of such issues, but I believe the City has failed to do enough public process homework before putting this measure on the ballot.

PUBLIC EQUITY: Public projects should be funded under the Guiding Principle: "Those who benefit pay." Extending this to the Civic Field Complex means that alternate funding sources, more equitable to citizens, can likely be found and should be sought before going to the ballot. Leading among these possible sources are HIGHER USER FEES and STATE FUNDING through Western Washington University.

Civic Field Complex is a well-used public facility; meaning the “public” should pay for it, whether through a bond issue or other mechanisms. WWU is a different kind of “public”, and as a State Institution, has unique access to State funds, that the Bellingham School District and the public at large do not have. I wonder if WWU isn’t benefiting out of proportion to the rest of the “public” on this proposition? They seem to have more to gain if it is built, and more to lose if it is not. I believe it's time for WWU to step up and shoulder its full share of these costs, not duck its institutional head and hope externalizing all the funding onto City residents will happen without anyone noticing.