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Jefferson County's plan envisions a lodge with a large conference center, and moving fairgrounds.

HOLLY M. GILL/MADRAS PIONEER - County Administrator Jeff Rasmussen, left, and Commissioner Kelly Simmelink pull up a Google Earth image of how they imagine a hotel and conference center would look on the eastern rim of the canyon above Lake Billy Chinook. The county is working with Oregon State Parks, and proposing an urban renewal district. 
As Oregon State Parks reworks the Cove Palisades State Park master plan, Jefferson County is hoping that the new plan will include land for a hotel and conference center on the canyon's eastern rim.

"The county has had three meetings with State Parks to discuss the possibilities," said County Commissioner Kelly Simmelink, who would like to see a privately funded hotel and conference center, similar to the Skamania Lodge, north of the northernmost overlook above Lake Billy Chinook.

"State Parks has been very receptive to the idea and would like to begin a public process to update the Cove master plan that would potentially include this idea into the plan, which is required before the State Parks would be allowed to move forward with the idea," he said.

The county is interested in forming an urban renewal district, which would take in nearly 27,000 acres from the rim of the canyon north, south and east to Highway 361 in certain areas.

The state allows the creation of urban renewal districts, referred to as URDs, to "improve the economic viability of specified areas," which might mean getting rid of blight, as the Madras URD has done throughout downtown Madras, or it might mean improving inadequate infrastructure.

The county's URD would allow it use property taxes from investments in the district, such as the hotel, to make improvements, such as to roads, and trails.

The county is proposing that State Parks identify 160 acres "of underutilized property" on the northeastern end of the park, which has views of the Cascade Mountains, for the hotel and conference center.

"It's a perfect location — only 1.3 miles from a 2-foot Deschutes Valley Water District main line, adjacent to a paved road, and only 3.5 miles from the Culver Highway, with an extension of Eureka Drive," said Commissioner Wayne Fording. "It is a worldclass view and we believe a historic-designed great lodge facility should be considered."

With funds generated by property taxes on new investment in the district, the county would offer an incentive for a project that included a conference room that would accommodate 400 people, just as the Madras URD generated funds that were used to pay Inn at Cross Keys Station to build an conference room for 200 people.

"If we created a URD, the future tax revenue could be returned to the hotelier in a partnership, but only if they build the conference center, and we would only make the payment if they meet annual conditions," said Commissioner Mae Huston. "The commissioners believe our community needs a large meeting room large enough for 400 dinner guests."

Since the closure of Kah-Nee-Ta, which is located in Wasco County, about 45 minutes from Madras, Huston believes that another facility would benefit the county. "We need something in Jefferson County," she said.

Simmelink agreed, noting, "If we're going to assist in making this possible, the No. 1 goal is a place to hold banquets and events that don't happen here now."

A hotel on State Parks property on the rim would open up the adjacent 3,400 acres of federal land around Round Butte for recreation, with new trails for horses, mountain bikes or hikers, according to Jeff Rasmussen, county administrative officer.

"We have a draft conceptual plan that includes participating in a hotel, conference room, trails, but also includes items to expand rural housing and to encourage solar farm development in the area," he said. "The draft boundary of the district is quite large, because you can only use the revenue inside the URD boundary, and only if the expense is listed in the plan."

"The main points are expand tourism, recreation, rural housing, and solar farm development. If it all comes together, the county would likely give grants to State Parks to make improvements," said Rasmussen, who envisions a paved trail that runs 3 to 4 miles along the rim, from High Chaparral north to the lodge, with shaded overlooks along the way.

The Bureau of Land Management manages the land directly on the rim, so the lodge would be set back about 400 feet from the edge of the rim. The land, located off Southwest Mountain View Drive, is zoned for park management.

"This urban renewal district would allow you to enhance the viewpoints — make them nice — and tie into an additional trail system," said Simmelink.

If the dream of a hotel or lodge is realized, the commission would also like State Parks to offer a free shuttle service to Cove Palisades State Park from Memorial Day to Labor Day for area residents.

The county is also considering a second URD north of Madras incorporating 1,117 acres around Northeast Cherry Lane, east of U.S. Highway 26.

Along with the two urban renewal districts, the county is looking into the possibility of moving the fairgrounds outside the city limits.

"The current location is surrounded by housing and the buildings have almost outlived their useful life," said Simmelink. "I'd like to go through a process of determining the best use of funds. If we're going to invest in new buildings, should it be in its current location? I'm leaning towards a new location that has new buildings that are highly focused on the annual fair events and not necessarily focused on investing in buildings that require the county to compete against the massive Deschutes County Expo buildings with additional tax dollar subsidies."

Simmelink suggested that the new location could even be near the hotel, with an indoor equestrian center.

If all goes as planned, the county hopes to form the URDs by May 2020.

The county will present "URD 101," to answer the public's questions about urban renewal districts at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, June 26. State Parks will discuss the Cove Palisades master plan prior to the county's presentation, at 10:30 a.m.

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