A proposal by a pair of elected officials could be a game-changer in the debate over the future of the Nichols Boat Basin on the Hood River waterfront.
Hood River Mayor Arthur Babitz and Port Commission President Jon Davies are scheduled to present a proposal which would shelve a plan for wakeboarding cable park in the basin to the port commission next Tuesday and the Waterfront Urban Renewal Board and city council the following week.
The proposal calls for urban renewal funding to be used to develop the basin as a public use area — including an esplanade running from the Event Site to the pedestrian footbridge which spans the Hood River — habitat improvements to the basin and surrounding area and the development of improved public recreation access along the west end of the basin.
Upcoming public meetings
The first two public meetings where the proposal for the basin will be discussed are:
Oct. 2 — Hood River Port Commission, 5 p.m., port office board room
Oct. 9 — Urban Renewal Agency Board, 6 p.m., City Council chambers
Both Davies and Babitz were careful to mention that they were presenting the plan as private individuals and could not speak for either the council or the port commission.
The plan includes many elements which opponents of the cable park have wanted to see all along. Many of those opposing the cable park have also opposed the hotel project at the south end of the basin, and for those who want the green space without the hotel, the plan comes with a catch: In order to secure the necessary amount of urban renewal funding, Babitz and Davies say the hotel would have to be built to provide a large enough tax base.
“The hotel is the key to this plan because it allows for the revenue base to pay for it,” Davies said.
The Waterfront Urban District currently has a frozen tax base of $11 million. Urban renewal funds can use taxes on development beyond that $11 million base and Babitz estimates that with the construction of the hotel, the commercial development of Lot 1 south of the event site on port property, and future development along the waterfront, could push that tax base into the $70 million range.
In order to build the esplanade and other features, the urban renewal district would be leveraging future economic growth in exchange for current funds.
“In an urban renewal area when you have development and growth that’s the engine for providing the dollars which allow you to do further things,” Babitz said. “You borrow based on future promises, then you develop more tax increment and that lets you do more and more.
“Because we have had such phenomenal growth in this area and have projections for more, especially considering the construction of the hotel and commercial building which are part of the Naito project, you are in a position where you can borrow significant funds and invest them to create infrastructure to create further development,” Babitz said.
Babitz and Davies said they had done the “minimum amount” of work in private to get the idea of the off the ground and now wanted it to work through the public process.
The first step in that process will be taking it before the port and urban renewal boards over the next two weeks and getting the directors of those organizations to begin the work on the process.
In the meantime, Naito Development, which had proposed the cable park and the hotel project under the NBW Hood River banner, said it is on board with the esplanade proposal.
“I think from our standpoint it seemed like an opportunity to get both the esplanade done and do some pretty important salmon and habitat restoration work, and we hadn’t been following the urban renewal district progress; and the thing that makes it all work is because our property is in the UA district our property when it’s built would help provide the ability to make that work,” said Bob Naito.
Naito added that while he was disappointed the cable park would not be coming to fruition, and could understand if supporters of the project were disappointed as well, he hoped everyone would take a long-term view.
“There have been a lot of people working on the cable park and it’s hard to see why they wouldn’t be disappointed, but I would hope that they would reflect on the broader community interest,” he said.
While the Naitos were on board with the proposal, opposition groups were hanging back until they saw more details about the plan.
Brent Foster, the attorney for Friends of the Hood River Waterfront, which has filed an appeal of the hotel project to the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals and has threatened the project with several lawsuits, said the Friends were supportive of the idea in general but wanted to see more from the city and the port.
“We believe that given the strong interest in protecting public access to the boat basin, dropping the cable park idea and focusing on making the basin an exceptional waterfront park and habitat area makes good sense,” said Foster in a statement. “This is a good proposal at this point, but we look forward to working with the city and the port to making this binding and enforceable.”
Heather Staten, a waterfront public access advocate who has been one of the leading critics of the cable park shared similar feelings of wanting to see the proposal further developed before embracing it.
“I strongly support dropping plans for the cable park and am excited about this proposal to launch a project to improve public access and habitat values in the basis, but the next step is moving this from a proposal stage into a final agreement,” Staten said in a statement. “This is a tremendously positive development, but there are many discussions yet to come before this proposal becomes final.”
Babitz and Davies hope that the proposal can be embraced by those on all sides following the contentious debate over cable park and hotel.
“This moves it in a positive direction,” Davies said.
“We have a completely achievable vision to improve the Nichols Basin in a way which will promote commerce, enhance habitat and improve public access,” they said in a statement accompanying their proposal. “What is now an uncomfortable gap in the waterfront trail can be an attractive esplanade humming with activity.
“The barren parking lot/beach on the west side can be developed into a prominent public water access. The accidental habitat of the basin ca be reconsidered for its appropriate role as the confluence of two great rivers.
“We can generate jobs immediately on the Naito property and spur Lot 1 development along lines which will provide the sort of jobs the community will need in the long term.”