Saturday, June 13, 2009

Isthmus Ad-Hoc Committee Meeting Discusses Putting Bond to the Voters on August Ballot

by Janine Gates

Above: The Isthmus Ad-Hoc Committee gets ready to begin at Olympia City Hall last Thursday evening.

A third meeting of the Olympia City Council’s Isthmus Ad-Hoc Committee composed of selected city council members and interested parties met last Thursday night in the council chambers at Olympia City Hall. The goal was to discuss Mayor Doug Mah’s bond proposal, park acquisition and various construction bonds, and seek clarifications on community visions.

Based on a proposal by Mah, the Olympia City Council is considering whether or not to seek voter approval of up to $33 million for park land acquisition and development in downtown Olympia. The council authorized Mah to form an ad-hoc committee to develop a recommendation on the issue. Mayor Mah and Councilmembers Joan Machlis and Joe Hyer are part of the ad-hoc committee.

Mah said he hoped the ballot measure would accomplish “long standing commitments and community desires. “Let’s expedite the deliverables….This is a bold and meaningful investment and I hope to see something happen in 12-24 months.”

Friends of the Waterfront, represented by Bonnie Jacobs, the Olympia Isthmus Park Association, represented by Jerry Reilly, two city Park and Recreation Advisory Board members, and Oly 2012 members Jackie Barrett Scharer and Peter Stroble participated in the evening’s discussions.

Many members of the public observed the public proceedings, but were not allowed to participate. Jane Ragland Kirkemo, city Administrative Services Director, gave an overview of the different types of levies that the city could use to accomplish the bond measure.

The group was then strategically divided into two and were asked to address specific questions such as what specific vision or outcome should result from the proposed ballot measure and when should these outcomes could be achieved.

Jacobs and Reilly felt that the bond proposal would be a hard sell to the voters because the bond does not include the parcels owned by Triway Enterprises. Reilly looked for areas to trim the $33 million bond to make it more palatable to voters. He said acquiring the Capitol Center Building, a.k.a. The Mistake on the Lake, should be a priority.

With its assessed value plummeting, Reilly said the building could be an attraction to developers who could buy and invest the funds needed to bring it back 'on-line' and then, “we‘ll be stuck with it forever.” Reilly said his group is reaching out to philanthropy foundations for funding to acquire park space on the isthmus.

“Obviously, the economic environment is more difficult than a year ago, but we’re just getting started,” Reilly said.

Reilly suggested that the bond could be placed at $15 million, with the rest of the funds raised from other sources including philanthropy and perhaps the state. Reilly also stated that "for a lot of people, not including the Triway parcels in the bond will present a problem.”

Machlis said, “I would really not like to do a bond issue if it doesn’t complete what we said we would do. The Fountain block is the view corridor…the risk to me is the Capitol Center Building. We need reserves because we don’t know the cost of the demolition. That’s the big one for needing some kind of reserves. I see this as a compromise because not everyone buys into the idea of the area as a park.”

Reilly responded that scientific polling is needed to determine what people want. “We all have this perception of what the majority thinks, before it goes to a ballot. We need to ask the questions in neutral language.”

“We don’t have willing sellers for the west parcels,” said Machlis. “There would be a lot of controversy about that.”

Parks representative Brenda Bulger said, “From the parks point of view, we are only asking the citizens of Olympia, but people come from all over to use the area.”

“Are you saying the state should participate in some way?” asked Keith Stahley, City of Olympia Community Planning and Development Director, who served as moderator for one group.

“Absolutely,” said Bulger. “That’s the pro’s and con’s of a levy on Olympia’s shoulders…it’s not fair.”

Reilly said that is why this is an issue of statewide significance. “We need to bring other players to the table about this land…”

Above: An isthmus breakout group breakout group consisting of, right to left, Brenda Bulger, city Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee member, Jerry Reilly, chair, Olympia Isthmus Park Association, Councilmember Joan Machlis, and Bonnie Jacobs, Friends of the Waterfront. Standing: Jane Ragland Kirkemo, city Administrative Services Director, re-explaining various levy options.

Stahley moved onto the next question: when should these outcomes be achieved?

“As soon as possible,” said Reilly. “Percival Landing is a safety hazard.” Stahley agreed, saying it’s likely to get worse and “we have to do something in the short term.”

Bulger added that putting bandaids on Percival takes millions away from our parks.

Machlis asked Reilly’s opinion if he thought a $33 million bond would pass. Reilly said, "It would be very difficult to pass. Most Olympians would question why we have to do this on our own and why the Capitol Center Building would be torn down to improve the area for Larida Passage (the name of Triway’s proposed project on the isthmus). Plus, the bond would have to pass by 60% voter approval. If we minimize the cost as much as possible, it could work, but I don't think we'll get 60%.”

The two groups came back together and found two areas they could agree on: Percival Landing is the most important and financing is a priority. Bundling the future of Percival Landing into a bond that could fail could be devastating to its future.

Thad Curtz, a member of Friends of the Waterfront, observed the group that included Oly 2012 members and Councilmember Joe Hyer. “I thought the tone of the discussion in the group I was watching was very polite and rather constrained. They stuck pretty carefully to the list of five questions, and barely glanced at the issue of Triway's parcels. City staff certainly made a conscious decision about trying to structure the conversation, presumably because they thought it would be more helpful to whatever they hoped to accomplish if they didn't have the pro-rezone and anti-rezone people talking directly to each other.”

Peter Stroble, Oly 2012 member, said later that access to the waterfront is number one in his organization’s list of priorities. “If the ballot doesn’t work, we will have squandered the opportunity to save Percival Landing. We aren’t against bundling Percival Landing into a bond, but we want to be careful.”

Another area where agreement was found is that the Heritage Park Fountain Block, which is composed of Traditions Fair Trade and other businesses next to the popular fountain, should not be included in the ballot. The inclusion of the block on the ballot was deemed to be too confusing to the voters, would add money to the ballot measure, and voters may feel that they have already paid for it through the two percent utility tax they passed in 2004 for parks and pathways. It was stated that the Fountain Block is part of a known long-term plan for Olympia and can wait.

In commenting on the discussion in the sub-group in which he participated, Stroble said,“We didn’t really disagree on anything. This is the biggest local political issue the public has been involved with in decades. I think if our three groups got together and say this is possible, then we can get this thing passed. We need leaders in our community to inspire our community to do great things. I really believe this. Mah is trying to find a compromise. The view is impeded by that ugly brown building, so let's get rid of it,” said Stroble.

The next meeting of the Isthmus Ad-Hoc committee is Monday, June 15th at noon in the council conference room, Olympia City Hall, 900 Plum Street.

More information about committee can be found at

Above: An isthmus ad-hoc committee breakout group with Peter Stroble, middle, leaning forward, speaking with Councilmember Joe Hyer.


  1. Janine,

    Nice work. I would just like to calrify one thing.

    Since the beginning of OLY2012, we have advocated for improving public access to shorelines. Our thoughts on this can be read in our initial Vision for Downtown Olympia published in May of 2008 on our Website: Oly2012 dot org.

    Fixing Percival Landing is a priority for us. We therefore want to be careful about bundling a ballot measure to raise the funds for his in with one for tearing down the Cap Center Building. Being careful is not the same as thinking it is a mistake.

    You quote me as saying if the bundled ballot measure passes, "we will have squandered the opportunity to fix Percival..." I would change that to, "we run the risk of squandering...."

    We want to be cautious and prudent about tying the fate of Percival to the the Cap Center Building, because the former is much more important. But ultimately, if we can gain confidence that the bundled measure can pass (first though cooperation and colatition building, and second through polling), we fully support the spirit of compromise among those who want housing on the isthmus (accommodated in the Larida Passage parcels) and those who want views (accommodated in this ballot measure).

    Great things can be done with some confidence, some vision and the right leadership.

  2. Very good write up, Janine, thank you.