County tourism group pulls proposal for old WL city hall
As recently as Jan. 2, West Linn and Clackamas County Tourism & Cultural Affairs (CCTCA, also known as Oregon's Mt. Hood Territory) were continuing to negotiate a potential agreement allowing CCTCA and several other organizations to move into the old city hall building near the Arch Bridge.
Just about a week later, those negotiations — which began in early 2017 — broke down as CCTCA informed West Linn officials that it would pursue a rental opportunity at a different space.
"At a previous presentation (to the City Council) we'd described our need for office space soon," CCTCA Executive Director Danielle Cowan said. "While maybe a member or two (of the council) may have wondered if it was that urgent, for us obviously it was extremely urgent.
"With so many things going on at the site, the City seems still not quite ready to entertain the kind of schedule we need to utilize the building for ourselves."
In an email, West Linn Mayor Russ Axelrod said he was disappointed by the decision.
"I'm not sure what I can add at this point since there are still potential City business considerations involving our building," he said. "I will say that I'm very disheartened at losing the opportunity to have County Tourism anchor our historic building in a partnership agreement at this strategic location."
The old city hall — which also served as a police station before a new building was completed in 2014 — is one of two "underutilized properties" that the City issued a Request for Information/Proposals (RIFP) on in late 2016. In March 2017, CCTCA submitted its proposal for a "cultural center," and the City Council was initially receptive to the idea — particularly if CCTCA was willing to fund a significant amount of the necessary improvements to the aging building.
CCTCA's primary motivation was to move out of an increasingly cramped space at a county office in Oregon City; according to Cowan, two of the newest employees have been working out of a closet. The City, meanwhile, was enticed by the prospect of placing a tourism and culture hub at a key waterfront property as it prepared for large-scale redevelopment in that area, as well as CCTCA's promise to handle the needed repairs at the building.
At a Nov. 20 presentation to the council, CCTCA said it hoped for a partnership agreement with the City to use the building as a cultural center for at least 15 years, with an option to renegotiate the agreement if need be. Under that agreement, CCTCA and other partners would have invested about $1 million to repurpose the building while also agreeing to cover ongoing maintenance and operations costs.
That cultural center would have housed CCTCA as well as other groups like the Clackamas County Arts Alliance and the Willamette Falls Heritage Area Coalition. CCTCA envisioned moving in on the second floor, with the first floor housing work spaces for other groups as well as other attractions for tourists.
Throughout the year, however, several councilors voiced concerns about a lack of parking at the building and the exact finances behind a potential agreement. The parking issue was further complicated by the sudden closure of the West Linn Paper Company mill adjacent to the building, as both the City and CCTCA hoped the company might agree to share some of its space.
While Cowan and other stakeholders agreed that there were hurdles to overcome, the decision-making process was ultimately delayed to the point of being untenable for CCTCA.
"With most projects in a community, some people have concerns and they get elevated to the point of paralyzing the project a bit," Cowan said. "And I think that might have happened here."
Perhaps the most consistent voice of hesitance was that of City Councilor Rich Sakelik, who said that his questions may have given the false impression that he was against the project.
"Part of the time it seems the county has pointed fingers saying I'm not interested," Sakelik said. "I am interested, but want to make an informed decision — I want to know what (they're) offering us. They said they'd be prepared to put somewhere between $700,000 to $1 million into it ... but that was a presentation and we never saw anything specifically in writing. Numbers don't mean anything until you get to putting together a legal document."
According to Axelrod, CCTCA felt pushback from both the council and the City's Economic Development Committee (EDC).
"The county also expressed some concerns with the negative feedback (and) energy of our economic development commission or advisory board and with some council members during prior considerations, and we are working on educating and informing all involved to improve perceptions and understanding," he said.
Cowan did leave the door open for CCTCA to be involved with the building in some fashion, even if it won't have its own offices there.
"We've talked with our partners and we're exploring how to keep the concept alive of a cultural center ... how to do financial support," Cowan said. "We're still in the game for that and it will be up to the appetite of the council and the community and the partners (as to) how we proceed."
"It is encouraging to know CTA still plans to offer much of the same financial support for building improvements needed to develop a cultural center for non-profit organizations focused on the Willamette Falls project and arts and culture for West Linn and the region," City Councilor Teri Cummings said in an email.
Willamette Falls Heritage Area Coalition Executive Director Siobhan Taylor said a cultural center would be near impossible without help from CCTCA.
"There's just no way that small nonprofits like the Willamette Falls Heritage Area could foot the bill for that facility, for all the upkeep," Taylor said. "I'll just be curious to see what transpires there now because I really think they had a great partner in (CCTCA)."
For Sakelik, any future discussions of how the building will be used should hold off until parking and other issues are worked out.
"In my mind we should be in a holding pattern because we don't have the key ingredient to anything that happens there," he said. "How can something go in there and have only a few spots open to anyone? It becomes a nonstarter if there's no defined parking.
"We can't make any firm decisions until we know all of the pieces of the pie."