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HR Port scouts funding path for waterfront park

The Port of Hood River is scouting out ways to pay for a riverside park without placing more of a tax burden on struggling families.

Dave Harlan, port director, said the agency has spent $5,500 to hire Tashman Johnson, LLC, for an expert study of available options. Under the port’s current planning process, more than 50 percent of the undeveloped property will remain in open space. Harlan said the port must now find resources to finance a paved trail along the entire shoreline, restroom facilities and landscaped areas with seating. He said the average cost to construct a basic park is $200,000 per acre, with an additional $74,000 per year for maintenance.

Although a signature drive has begun for a citizen initiative to preserve almost the entire local frontage along the Columbia River as a park, Harlan said there are no funding recommendations included in that proposal.

“People have been talking about a waterfront park for 12-15 years but not once have they come up with a way to pay for it,” said Harlan.

He said the port is supportive of recreation, but is equally concerned about the economic plight of the rural county. According to Harlan, that is why the agency proposes that buildable parcels be developed to bring in more family wage jobs.

“Like many other isolated Oregon communities, unemployment rates are higher and wages are lower here in Hood River County compared with statewide averages,” he said.

For example, Harlan said in March, the local area posted a 10.5 percent unemployment rate, compared with 7.6 percent in the state and 5.8 percent for the nation. He said that problem is compounded by a per capita income of $22,314 — just 82.7 percent of the statewide figure of $26,958 — and a median home price of $152,400, higher than the state average of $151,000.

“If you divide average wage and salary figures into the median housing value — and I’ve done that calculation for all 36 Oregon counties — you’ll find that the average home in this community is a hair over seven times’ Hood River’s average annual wage and salary,” Harlan said.

Closing that income gap is part of the port’s goal in proposing mixed-use development of the waterfront. Harlan plans to provide more data to support that plan at two informational meetings that will be held on July 31 at Bowe Theater in the Hood River Valley High School.

The first session will be 12:15 to 1:15 p.m, although an optional picnic buffet will be set up at 11:30 a.m. outside the building. The menu includes two meats, salads, fruit, bread and a beverage for $8.50. Lunch reservations must be made by calling 386-2000 before 5 p.m. on Friday.

The evening event takes place inside the theater auditorium at 7 p.m. Harlan and Lynn Guenther, city manager, will be joined by staffers in presentations that include a historical overview of the long planning process — including more than 47 public hearings to date — and details about work done in the past year.

One option for funding a park, said Harlan, is to set up an Urban Renewal District that will freeze property taxes so more money could be spent on specified improvements. He said the waterfront, which is currently underdeveloped, would qualify for the same tax increment financing program that was previously used to revitalize downtown Hood River. Under that plan, Harlan said a developer would shoulder the costs for agreed-upon infrastructure projects. Once the contracted timeline for the work had been met, Harlan said the tax assessment of the area would jump to the current level. He said the planning process for that work would involve citizen input at every stage, especially when determining what projects and activities to undertake.

“This is the standard tool recommended by the Trust for Public Lands to pay for the parks that people want,” Harlan said.

The port and city are also looking at the options of charging user fees for park use, or asking voters to approve a bond levy that will finance some of the improvements.

“We want to find the best alternative so that we address the whole of the county’s economic picture,” Harlan said.

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