Our Voice: Richland could have handled it better

We are disappointed in the way the Richland City Council ended formal discussions about city involvement in the development of a public market on George Washington Way.

We’re not entirely surprised, given that it wasn’t the council’s — or its consultant’s idea — to begin with.

But what it was, was a vision for something that grew from a seed of an idea to a proposal that garnered significant community support. The vision, something new and exciting, was driven by a group of creative and thoughtful folks looking to enhance life in the Tri-Cities.

For more than a year, there has been much buzz about the potential for a Tri-Cities version of Seattle’s Pike Place Market or Wenatchee’s Pybus Public Market. Adam Brault, the driving force behind the market idea, went as far as to find a developer who then secured a deal with the city for 2.7 acres along George Washington Way commonly referred to as “the pit.”

It’s an unsightly lot with a big hole at the gateway to Richland that the city has long needed to do something with. No one had been willing to tackle the site until Brault and his team came along, hiring consultants, drafting concepts and investing money in something that was nothing more than an idea.

But the city never fully grasped the genius in the concept, or that a large contingent of citizens was extremely excited about the prospect. The plan certainly wasn’t perfect and financing and parking quickly became hurdles to its future.

And while Brault and his band of visionaries were winding their way through the concept and feasibility process, Richland was going its own way with its own consultant, drafting up a proposed vision for the city’s waterfront.

Brault and company presented an updated and expanded plan to the city in February, suggesting the possibility of a public-private partnership to bring the market to life, creating a new economic driver for the city with regional appeal. The council only seemed to hear the proposal under duress as supporters of the plan bombarded City Hall. Brault asked the city to consider investing $60,000 — half the cost of the business plan needed to determine the market’s viability.

And then things got strangely quiet at the city. Brault asked the city in April for a second, 120-day extension of the existing development contract for the property, something not entirely uncommon, and remind the city about the $60,000. The city responded with a letter, rejecting the idea of the public market and sticking to the original plan of office, retail and residential development at the site.

The city said no council member asked to amend the existing contract to include a public market so the issue would not be addressed further by the council. It seems odd that they would all go silent on the idea, especially given the public’s support for the concept and the public discussion of the topic at previous council meetings. It is, however, a way for individual council members to avoid publicly taking an unpopular stance and we suspect that explains the silence.

The city also cited that it had hired its own consultant to provide “expert advice on the highest and best use for several locations within the City’s Waterfront District.” That consultant did not support a public market at the site, instead suggesting putting in a city park. The same consultant recommended narrowing George Washington Way and rerouting traffic to city streets. We, and many others, think the city’s consultant needed to do some more homework on traffic patterns and challenges.

According to news stories from the early discussions on the plans for “the pit,” it appears that a market was always a part of the vision for the proposed development there.

According to the city, “requests to deviate from the course set under the existing contract create opportunity for potential liability.” Rather than look for a solution to amend the agreement, the city was looking for a way out. The city said it didn’t want the burden of the market to fall to the taxpayers. We’re not convinced taxpayers wouldn’t support the project.

The city should have given the idea its due, and the council should have voted in public session. Whether it’s the right plan in the right place is yet to be known but the city could have handled the matter better.

Brault and company are undeterred but understandably disappointed. They say they’ll build a public market somewhere, someday. The dream remains alive.