No definite path for failed Tri-City public projects

Sara Schilling, Tri-City HeraldNovember 16, 2013 

Tri-City voters have rejected sales tax increases for public projects twice in three months.

A regional aquatics facility and water park proposal failed in August. And a Nov. 5 proposal to expand and improve the Three Rivers Convention Center in Kennewick appears headed for a similar fate, although the election results aren't quite final.

So, what happens now?

Will the groups let their proposals drop, or bring them back as-is or with some changes? What about the possibility of bundling the proposals together, perhaps with another local project? And what about timing? Could voters see something next year, or the year after?

At this point, nothing has been decided. And it will probably be a while before that changes.

The Tri-Cities Regional Public Facilities District board, which brought forward the aquatics measure, met last week. Members discussed their options and listened to testimony from the public, but didn't settle on a definite path forward.

The group agreed to get back together in March, with some members in the meantime visiting the Richland, Pasco and Kennewick city councils and the three cities' public facilities districts to talk, assess and gather input.

The Kennewick Public Facilities District is expected to meet this week -- its first session since the Nov. 5 election in which its convention center proposal appeared before voters.

Barbara Johnson, president of the Kennewick district's board, said she doesn't envision her group giving up on the project, which she said is greatly needed.

"I don't think we can afford to let it die. I think we need to figure out some way to make it happen, through our own vote or working with the regional (facilities district)," she said.

Her group's proposal involved a one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax increase in Kennewick to finance the $20 million expansion and improvement of the West Grandridge Boulevard facility.

The work was to include adding about 50,000 square feet of exhibit space, along with some other space and parking.

The additional room is needed to attract new events and conventions in an increasingly competitive regional market and to retain existing events, many of which are outgrowing the facility as it is now, supporters have said.

The election results won't be official until certification later this month, but the latest tally shows the expansion failing with about 57 percent against.

The aquatics proposal was on the ballot in Richland, Pasco and Kennewick in the August primary.

It involved a one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax increase in all three cities to pay for an indoor and outdoor aquatics facility with features from a competition pool to slides and a surf simulator.

Supporters said it would bring millions of dollars in visitor spending to the area and greatly increase access to swimming lessons and water safety training, among other communitywide benefits.

The proposal won majority support in Pasco, where the facility was set to be located. But voters in Richland and Kennewick turned it down, and it failed with about 55 percent against overall.

Officials said last week that it seems clear, in light of how both proposals fared, that resistance to new taxes played a significant role in August and November, especially given the financial uncertainty for so many with everything from the government shutdown to Obamacare.

"I've heard the Tri-Cities say that a sales tax increase is not right (at this time), until the national climate changes," said Matt Watkins, president of the regional board and mayor of Pasco.

Steve Young, the mayor of Kennewick and regional board vice-president, said he'd like to see both boards spend time regrouping, reassessing and talking with the public about the future.

He noted another sales tax measure could also be on the horizon in the near future -- for criminal justice needs in Benton County.

While the regional board last week didn't settle on a definite plan for its future, several members said they don't want to see it give up or go away.

"I think we should keep the entity alive, even if it's dormant for a period of time" until the timing is better for a proposal, said Richland Mayor John Fox.

"I think it's essential for the Tri-City metropolitan area to find a way to work together on these major facilities that you only need one of," he said.

-- Sara Schilling: 582-1529; sschilling@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @saraTCHerald

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