Gateway Center proponents plead case to county

The Gateway Center project would create a large facility at downtown Aberdeen.

The Grays Harbor County commissioners plan to again consider matching funds for the pending Gateway Project in Aberdeen following a discussion between the commissioners, Aberdeen leaders and a representative from Rep. Derek Kilmer’s office.

A 10 percent match of $55,000 will be included on the agenda for the upcoming county commission meeting Monday. That number is less than the $165,000 requested by the City of Aberdeen.

The Gateway Center project would create a large facility at downtown Aberdeen which will house local economic organizations, as well as conference rooms for rent and a visitors center. In all, the project could cost more than $8 million to complete.

The City of Aberdeen had requested $1.65 million from the Legislature for engineering and design in order to make the entire project shovel ready. Proving too lofty for the state, the Legislature instead contributed $550,000 in grant funding to the city. The county had pledged to match 10 percent.

On Monday, Commissioner Wes Cormier said he had too many questions to vote on releasing the $165,000 to the City of Aberdeen from the county’s economic development fund (also known as the “.09 fund”). Commissioner and Chairwoman Vickie Raines noted some confusion as to whether the county had agreed to contribute 10 percent of the requested funds or 10 percent of the awarded funds. There was some additional confusion as to when the pledge was added to the county’s budget.

At a meeting on Wednesday, the commissioners met with Aberdeen Mayor Erik Larson, Aberdeen City councilmen Alan Richrod and Peter Schave, Aberdeen City Administrator Lisa Scott, project advocate Scott Reynvaan, Greater Grays Harbor Inc. CEO Dru Garson and Nicholas Carr from Derek Kilmer’s office.

Raines said she supported the county matching 10 percent of the awarded funds at $55,000. Commissioner Frank Gordon agreed.

The pledge was made after the county’s budget was adopted in 2015, and it was entered into the budget (at $165,000) without being explicitly presented to the other commissioners. The budget was approved on Nov. 17 and Raines asked for the earmark for the Gateway Center on Nov. 23.

“It would be like taking a $25 million budget and inserting something — you really wouldn’t know it was there unless you’d been told it was there,” Raines explained. “I just want to apologize for not coming full circle. It’s one of those things when you submit something or assign something, you kind of take it off your plate and away it goes.”

Larson said he understood if the commissioners wanted to give only the $55,000 to match what was awarded by the state.

“The City of Aberdeen has really been doing work knowing that the funds are invested from the state, and we really just need to county to make a decision on the .09 funds and we can finalize the funding from the state,” Larson said. “We’re fine with (the $55,000). We kind of assumed that was going to happen. … But I see that as being a first step of the county thinking this is a good idea and they’re interested, and then we can discuss what that interest is going to turn into.”

Cormier’s former sticking point of who would own the building was addressed. Cormier doesn’t believe the county should own the building, saying the county owns and maintains too many facilities already. Cormier has noted he believes the details should be ironed out before funding is allocated.

“Is the cart before the horse a little bit on who is going to own the building?” Cormier asked.

Larson said the project wasn’t at that point. Currently, the city already has purchased the land that will serve as the home for the future project. What the city is requesting is support.

“I’m really asking: ‘Is the county supportive of this project? Are they supportive of matching the state funds and joining all of the other local leaders who joined in on the project, or is this something that the county doesn’t feel like is a priority?’” Larson said. “I want us to move forward with what we can work on today, and then we can spend time working through what the relationship and what phase three of the construction and management of the facility looks like.”

Cormier had other concerns, saying visitors centers are obsolete and questioning how the visitors center would help East County.

Carr said the term “visitors center” could be a misnomer.

“Visitors center is not the way to sell it,” Carr said. “I’ve already engaged with the National Park Service, the Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife — every one of those agencies is going to come down and meet with you guys about possible partnerships, including new digital technologies. … It may even be that on certain days of a season you won’t have to go to Olympia to get permits, you can get them there.”

“We’re not talking about your 1950s visitors center,” he added.

The project proponents focused more on the business side of the project, all agreeing the center would house economic organizations. The goal is when a company or business is seeking to do business in Grays Harbor County, representatives from those businesses and companies could go to one building to meet with all of the local economic organizations, rather than driving from city to city and building to building.

In the end, Larson noted that the state Legislators and other investing agencies were watching how the county would respond to the project.

“Everybody who is involved in this is looking at the county saying, ‘What is the county going to do?’ And that’s really the whole point,” Larson said. “If the county’s not going to get involved in this, I think everybody is going to continue to move forward without the county involved. That’s going to impact future projects between the county and other agencies.”

“Partnerships and collaboration shouldn’t mean money,” Cormier said. “It should mean working together. And we may not always agree when we’re working together.”

No decisions were made during the meeting and the commissioners again will consider allocating .09 funds to the gateway center project on Monday.