Fort Worden lifelong learning center’s future in flux

By Charlie Bermant
Peninsula Daily News

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PORT TOWNSEND — Public development authority staff will work over the next month to determine what needs to be done to facilitate its management of a lifelong learning center at Fort Worden State Park.

“Our previous financial model was based on the transfer of the entire park,” Dave Robison, the executive director of the Fort Worden Lifelong Learning Center Public Development Authority, said at a meeting of the board Wednesday.

“We need to see what makes sense with the operation of the lifelong learning center and provide the analysis to the board so they have the best idea as to how to move forward.”

Specifics will be discussed at a board retreat scheduled for 8:30 a.m., Monday, May 7, at the Cotton Building, 607 Water St., Port Townsend.

The information developed will be presented at the next state Parks and Recreation Commission meeting on May 24 in Yakima.

In January, it was proposed that the public development authority manage the entire park, which would have included current park operations as well as the lifelong learning center concept, which is under development.

Opposition to that idea emerged during two public meetings, and the public development authority decided not to seek oversight of the entire park.

Instead, it would seek a lease of the park’s educationally oriented buildings to be developed into an academic campus, called a lifelong learning center, that offers a series of educational and recreational options.

That idea was approved by the state Parks and Recreation Commission on March 29.

Commissioners said that Fort Worden will always be a state park, but that they support the establishment of a lifelong learning center, and directed the PDA to submit a business plan for managing the learning center no later than Sept. 1.

The seven-member commission also said that, before the commission takes final action on the governance of the learning center, there will be “ample opportunity for the public, stakeholders and the Legislature to learn about and express their views to the commission.”

The business plan expected from the PDA, which is to be revised from one completed in 2008, was initially intended to address a $700,000 shortfall for the operation of the park and the lifelong learning center.

Now that the PDA will not manage the park, the amount of the shortfall has changed, Robison said, who added that closing a gap will be more difficult without having revenue from the park to offset lifelong learning center expenses.

The amount of the shortfall outside of park operations is not known, he said.

The May retreat initially was planned at Fort Vancouver, a successful example of a public development authority, but the venue was changed because “if we have it locally then people around here can participate,” Robison said.

The PDA will most likely travel to Fort Vancouver for a “fact-finding mission” at another time,” he said.

On Tuesday, Robison and PDA Chairwoman Cindy Hill Finnie met with Assistant Parks Director Larry Fairleigh in Olympia.

“He was very supportive,” Robison said.

“Not that he wasn’t before, but he has heard from the parks commission that this is the highest priority and it appears that he will do anything he can to help.”

“We will have a more collaborative style than what we had in the past and we all want to do what is best for the park,” Finnie said.

Since there will be no title transfer, the PDA will seek to lease a portion of the park for the lifelong learning center for an undetermined time.

In previous meetings, a 99-year lease was discussed, but a resolution passed Wednesday by the PDA has several mentions of a “long term” lease without a specific duration.

Previous proposals had the PDA leasing all of the buildings on the campus but this may need to be scaled down, said board member Scott Wilson, who also is the publisher of the Port Townsend Jefferson County Leader.

“The PDA needs to build up its credibility and capability to pull off projects,” Wilson said.

“I hope the plans presented to us at the retreat contain a serious look at the small scale approach.”

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

Last modified: April 11. 2012 6:12PM
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