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The service provider for adults with disabilities plans to purchase land and build a new facility.

PMG PHOTO: ANNA DEL SAVIO - Lifempowered is purchasing its property in St. Helens from the Port of Columbia County. The nonprofit plans to tear down its old building and construct a newer, more modern facility.A local service provider for adults with developmental disabilities is planning a $4.4 million rebuild of its current headquarters in St. Helens.

Lifempowered, known as Riverside Training Centers until 2020, has run administration out of a building on land owned by the Port of Columbia County for decades. The nonprofit operates group homes, runs a day program for adults with intellectual or developmental disabilities, and provides support for people living in their own homes.

Lifempowered executive director Cindy Stockton said that their latest strategic plan showed that accomplishing the organization's goals would require an updated building. Remodeling the existing roughly 9,000-square-foot building would cost almost the same as building an entirely new building, Stockton said.

But in order to get funding to construct a new building, the organization needs to own the property.

"It's really hard to get grants if what you're building wouldn't ultimately be yours," Stockton said.

The Port of Columbia County board of commissioners voted to authorize port staff to sell the property to Lifempowered last month, but Stockton said the purchase isn't finalized quite yet.

In the new facility, "a small part would house our current administrative staff, but the rest of the building — for the first five years at least — would be use by people we support," meaning people with disabilities and those who work with them, Stockton said.

The building's meeting spaces could also be opened up to use by other nonprofits, but only after five years because of grant requirements, Stockton explained.

"It creates capacity for meeting space which is not prevalent in the county."

Lifempowered is working with St. Helens to apply for a community development block grant. Those federal funds can be used for community facilities, but a city or county has to apply for the funds. St. Helens previously received $1.5 million for the Columbia Pacific Food Bank through the grant program.

The state and federal government pay for services for people with disabilities, which mostly covers operational costs. But for capital improvement projects like a new building, providers have to seek funding through public and private grants and donations.

The nonprofit agreed to purchase the property from the port for $225,000, a 10% discount from the $250,000 appraisal the port received.

The port leases properties throughout the port district, but rarely sells property.

The sale price proved complex earlier this year, with commissioners debating how much of a discount — if any — they wanted to give to Lifempowered.

"If it was up to me, I would give them the land with no payments at all, because I think that what they give to our community is a service that is not being provided by anyone else, for the most vulnerable among us," Port Commissioner Nancy Ward said at a May port meeting. "But in order for us to do that, we would actually have to change our whole structure. I mean, we are a capitalistic organization, that's our mission. I don't think that we are going to change that, as much as I would like it to change."

Commissioner Larry Ericksen said that Lifempowered's work is "transformational, for people's lives, for our community — no question about that. 

But commissioners expressed concern about the consequences of offering a hefty discount.

Considering a $25,000 discount, Ericksen said he was "happy to do that. I think it's worth of that."

But, he added, "I struggle doing more than that, because I don't want to set a precedent for a future commission, that they're stuck with something like that."

Commissioner Chris Iverson, who left the board in June when his term ended, said he had "real issues" with using taxpayer funds to buy property and then giving it away for free or with a substantial discount. "What do we tell people who say, 'Hey, I had to pay you taxes, and now you're giving stuff away?'"

Ericksen has since resigned from the commission to move out-of-state. Iverson is expected to be re-appointed to fill out his unexpired term.

Commissioner Robert Keyser said he seeks to base his decisions on not just job creation, but also job retention.

"I do think that supporting existing jobs is as important as recruiting new," he added.

The Lifempowered project "brings revenue to our community and jobs just from the construction and the ongoing maintenance of the building. It helps us grow our organization which creates more jobs. And it engages our employees to have higher skill sets, which allows them to reach certifications so we can pay higher wages, (and) it brings that money back into the community," Stockton told commissioners in May.

When fully staffed, the nonprofit has close to 100 employees. The group homes house a total of 30 people, with a dozen more receiving assistance in their homes. In a year, the nonprofit serves about 70 people, Stockton estimated. Most of those people require services for many years.

"People we support don't 'get better.' They have an intellectual disability from birth, typically," Stockton explained.


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