Is Port Townsend takeover of Fort Worden park too speedy?
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Union representative Jeanine Livingston challenges the proposal for the public development authority to take over Fort Worden State Park at last week’s meeting. — Photo by Charlie Bermant/Peninsula Daily News

By Charlie Bermant
Peninsula Daily News

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PORT TOWNSEND — The more than 200 people who attended a meeting last week to learn about the possibility of the Lifelong Learning Center Public Development Authority taking over all or part of the ownership and management of Fort Worden State Park were left with more questions than answers about the process.

The idea of turning the park into a lifelong learning center has been in progress since 2004, but it was just a couple of weeks ago that a proposal for a public development takeover of the park was discussed at a state Parks and Recreation Commission meeting.

Action was tabled until the commission’s next meeting, which will be at Fort Worden in March.

The topic will be discussed at 7 p.m. March 28 in the Wheeler Theater.

Some of those commenting Thursday night feel the process is moving too quickly.

“I would like to see a more gradual approach,” said Dorn Campbell of Port Townsend.

“I haven’t seen an examination of the downside of what can happen and the potential lawsuits.

“I would rather see them go slow instead of biting it off and creating a huge fiasco,” he said.

State Parks board member Rodger Schmitt said nothing has been rushed.

“We have been gathering public input on this for eight years,” he said.

“We will not proceed [with any transfer] until we are sure the PDA can be successful.”

“I have no stake here aside from the fact that I pay taxes,” said Walter McQuillen of Port Townsend.

“The people on the PDA board are smart people. They are business people who are going to take the park out of the government’s hands and run it like a business,” McQuillen said.

“But a smart business person will have a plan and have the funds lined up before taking action.

“I want to see how they are going to accomplish this without my tax dollars.”

Former park manager Kate Burke, who will begin working as a consultant to the PDA on March 1 to develop a business plan for the PDA’s managing of the park, said the park generates all but $700,000 of the income needed for its operation.

The plan will include options for funding this gap, she said.

PDA Executive Director Dave Robison has said in the past that ownership would open financing avenues with banks and other partners that could help pay for the park’s continued operation, maintenance and management.

The lifelong learning center is envisioned to provide space for a variety of recreational and educational opportunities.

The focus is to develop destination learning programs at Fort Worden, along with retreats, conference development, events and recreational experiences on the park overlooking Admiralty Inlet.

Under the proposal State Parks is considering, Fort Worden would remain a park but would no longer be called a state park.

The two-hour meeting featured a presentation about the PDA by Burke and background from Robison before breaking into five small groups to discuss staffing, volunteers, programs, future use, access, a business plan and funding and management options.

After the small groups met, questions were recited in front of the large group.

That was followed by a 30-minute public comment session.

The PDA board intends to address all questions over the next few weeks and put the answers on its website, www.pdaofpt.com.

Jeanine Livingston, a representative of the Washington Federation of State Employees, registered her displeasure about the idea of a transfer, as well as the meeting agenda.

“I find this format to be offensive,” she said.

“This was not an open meeting.

“Whenever someone tried to ask a question, a PDA board member would intervene and try to correct the question so it would ask what they wanted,” she said.

“After eight years, we have no business plan, no environmental study, no funding source and no answer to any of these questions which should be decided before anything takes place.”

Centrum Executive Director John MacElwee disagreed with Livingston.

“This is the first public meeting I’ve been to where the partners of the park are exchanging ideas with the public about their vision for the park,” he said.

MacElwee said he thought the $700,000 could be raised easily if the PDA takes over the park.

Many of the questions asked were financial, whether current fort tenants are profitable and what will happen if expected funds do not materialize.

Some asked if the PDA breaks its agreement with the parks or breaks its trust with the public, who will hold it accountable.

Others wanted to know whether access to the boat ramp would continue and whether PDA management would lead to the construction of a hotel on the parade grounds.

Both State Parks and PDA representatives have said such construction will not occur.

PDA Chairwoman Cindy Hill Finnie said deeding the entire park over to the PDA was a possibility.

Whether the PDA takes control or not, the parks system is still committed to the idea of developing the park as a lifelong learning center, said State Parks spokeswoman Linda Burnett.

“If the management of the park doesn’t change, it will be business as usual,” she said.

“We will continue the plans for the lifelong learning center that have been in place since 2004.”

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Jefferson County Reporter Charlie Bermant can be reached at 360-385-2335 or at charlie.bermant@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: February 18. 2012 6:07PM
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