By Charlie Bermant
Peninsula Daily News
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“We’ve sat here and listened to you talk for more than an hour and a half,” said Dennis Haven, who works as a volunteer at Fort Worden State Park, during the Thursday night meeting.
“When are you going to let us speak?”
The meeting, which was attended by about 150 people, was scheduled to answer some of the questions that were raised at a Feb. 17 meeting.
It has been proposed that the local public development authority take over all or part of the management of Fort Worden State Park and develop it into an academic campus, called a lifelong learning center, that offers a series of educational and recreational options.
Haven was not the only person appearing frustrated by Thursday’s meeting.
Terry McCulloch said she was disappointed in the forum and the public development authority’s efforts so far, saying the questions she had asked at the last forum hadn’t been answered.
“The State Parks system has a responsibility to protect our natural resources and our history,” she said.
“I don’t understand how a lifelong learning center is going to protect those things as well as the parks system, and that scares me.”
The proposal is under consideration by Washington State Parks.
The state Parks and Recreation Commission has told the public development authority to submit a business plan by November.
The plan would deal with paying for management of the park, including addressing a projected $700,000 shortfall.
Former Fort Worden Park Director Kate Burke began a three-month $21,000 contract to help refine the business plan March 1, and up to $23,000 could be paid to an agreement with PROS Consulting for development of that plan.
The state Parks and Recreation Commission is expected to consider a proposal for a takeover of the park later this month.
A public hearing is set for 7 p.m. March 28 at Wheeler Theater in Fort Worden State Park. Possible action is planned at 9 a.m. March 29.
Thursday’s meeting began with a series of speeches by State Parks personnel, PDA members and Fort Worden partners.
After Havens’ comment, moderator Gary Cummins asked the two remaining scheduled speakers to cede their time, and they agreed to do so.
After a short break, there occurred more than an hour of spirited comments which addressed not only the idea of a management change at the park but the state of the government, the economy and Port Townsend’s mission.
The stage for this was set earlier by Assistant Parks Director Larry Fairleigh, who said the decision to turn over management or ownership of the park to the public development authority was one of the most important decisions the State Parks commission will ever make.
“Some of you have said ‘well, you’ve transferred other parks’ and that’s true but those were small and served a local audience and will be better managed by local governments because they are local parks,” he said.
“But Fort Worden is not a local park, it is a park of statewide significance and is arguably the icon of the state parks system.”
Fairleigh acknowledged there were people in the audience who strongly favored the transfer of the park to the public development authority, while others felt just as passionately that it should remain a state park.
What they had in common, he said, is a desire to implement what is best for the park and its visitors.
“This has always been a learning center,” said Jefferson County Commissioner Phil Johnson.
“But I think it’s the right thing [if the PDA takes over park management] as long as it remains a place where people can learn and gives the young people here the opportunity to not have to leave the area in order to get an education.”
Jeanine Livingston, a representative of the Washington Federation of State Employees, said she would like to hear specifics about what businesses would be brought to the park to alleviate the projected $700,000 operational shortfall, and how these businesses plan to get enough customers.
“There is no airport, bus station or train station to bring people here,” she said. “There is only one two-lane road, and the ferries are all booked in the summertime.
She added: “This is a significant piece of history in Washington that requires business savvy, and that’s not what we have been hearing, or at least it’s been absent in the conversations here.”
Jim Buckley suggested a closer look at having the state continue to administer the park.
“The state is a better guardian of the public trust,” Buckley said.
Bill Miller said that the state should assume more of the funding responsibility for parks.
Port Townsend Mayor David King said that government is paying for less and less and that “it will never go back to where it was before.
“We are in a position where we have to take over management of this asset,” he said.
“Our best effort is to preserve what we have so we don’t become an example of the terrible things that have happened to us.
“I’d rather be an architect of where I live than a tenant where I live.”
Said Kathleen Jackson: “It’s great that we had a forum like this in Port Townsend.
“Usually we always see the same faces at meetings on the same boards and I love them all, but this is far too big a matter to entrust to a small local board.
“When you go home and get ready for bed tonight, you need to determine if you really are the ones who are best qualified to do this enormous job.”
The comments were typed by Burke and public development authority officials said that answers to the questions would be posted on www.fwpda.org.
Jefferson County Reporter Charlie Bermant can be reached at 360-385-2335 or firstname.lastname@example.org.