Our Voice: Time right for talks about Kennewick buying part of Columbia park

March 10, 2014 

One of the jewels of our community is woefully underused. Many of us drive by it daily without so much as a second thought.

We're talking about Columbia Park. Communities across the nation would be thrilled to have waterfront recreation and access of its size and scope, but a complex web of ownership and operating responsibility hinder its use and potential to generate revenue.

On most days, you'll see a handful of walkers and gawkers, a duffer or two on the course and, if weather permits, a group playing disc golf. Oh, and lots of Canada geese, but that's another editorial.

Kennewick is once again exploring the idea of a potential purchase of some park land. City staff and the Corps of Engineers, which owns the land, have been in discussions to find out if 61 acres of the park could be sold to the city.

The city leases the land from the Corps and takes care of it. Ownership would give Kennewick more flexibility in what it does with the land.

One of the biggest revenue generators for the city is the fee for car dealers pay to hold a sale in the park. The Corps does not see that as an allowable use but has let the city continue with the sales while the discussions about the land transfer continue.

The land under discussion includes the fishing pond and the Playground of Dreams. Restaurants and retail businesses would be possible if the land were owned by the city. Hotels would not.

It's always exciting when a plan is floated to make better use of the park. The city has contemplated ownership before. But the last time serious talks were held was about the same time Kennewick Man was discovered there. A nationwide controversy over the bones ensued, and Kennewick eventually backed away from the acquisition, fearful of more similar discoveries.

Kennewick is already the caretaker of the park, spending $600,000 a year on the 356-acre waterfront gem. It's responsible for maintenance on buildings, fencing, gazebos and the playground. It also cleans the bathrooms, mows the grass, takes out the trash and provides water and utilities to the park.

Kennewick is already in the business of running the park and taking ownership of a portion of it makes good sense.

Right now, the city takes in about $100,000 a year in fees for use of the park and events. That number could easily grow if it had ownership of the land, instead of a landlord as restrictive as the federal government.

The city will pay the Corps about $14,000 to get legal and parcel descriptions on the 61 acres. Just the research is expected to take a year. The council will get updates through the process and can stop the talks at any time.

Columbia Park and failed development deals there have taught the city many lessons in recent years. We expect leaders to proceed with caution but we're certain it's a worthy pursuit.

The city has already said it would seek public input before any development decisions are made should the land transfer proceed. And the tribes would have a say as well.

The Hanford Reach Interpretive Center is set to open at the other end of the park this summer, bringing more visitors. It's the perfect time to renew discussions about better use for the park in general.

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