City would reserve $400,000 for cultural center, engage with nonprofit in 'due diligence' phase before building could be occupied

SUBMITTED PHOTO: CLACKAMAS COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY - The old city hall property has long been a focal point along the city's waterfront, and at one point served as both city hall and a train station.The framework for a cultural and tourism center at West Linn's old city hall building is beginning to take shape.

At a work session Monday, Dec. 3, West Linn City Council expressed general approval of the terms that will be included in a letter of intent between the City and the Willamette Falls Heritage Area Coalition (WFHAC), the latter of which hopes to occupy the vacant building alongside other local nonprofits and create a cultural/tourism center.

Monday's action was the latest step in a process that kicked into high gear in November after WFHAC presented its ideas to the council. On Nov. 13, the council asked City Attorney Tim Ramis to begin drafting a letter of intent — which was requested by WFHAC as a gesture of commitment from the City — and Monday's work session was intended to brief the council on what that letter will include.

The future of the vacant building — which sits on prime waterfront real estate adjacent to the Arch Bridge and most recently was used as the West Linn Police station — has been in limbo since January, when Clackamas County Tourism & Cultural Affairs (CCTCA, also known as Oregon's Mt. Hood Territory) withdrew a proposal to move into the building and provide significant funding for needed repairs.

WFHAC — which has spent years working to create a National Heritage Area around the Willamette Falls — hopes to essentially take on the role that CCTCA would have played as the leader of a group of nonprofit organizations that would work in and help manage the building as a new cultural center in partnership with the City.

Specifically, WFHAC envisions a first floor cultural center with exhibits and interpretive installations that could tell visitors about the riverfront area. The second floor would be used for office space and community meetings.

WFHAC asked for a letter of intent in part to put the City's commitment in writing, but it would also help preserve a $100,000 grant from CCTCA. The tourism organization recently informed the City that it had until February to decide if that grant funding would be used, or the organization would pull it and move the funding into another project.

As outlined by Community Development Director John Williams during the Monday work session, the letter of intent will call for the City and WFHAC to work together on a "due diligence" phase funded by WFHAC.

"The due diligence phase would include a thorough building assessment, identification and cost estimating of needed improvements and parking options, plus development of a proposed financing plan, cost-sharing agreements, roles and responsibilities, and other elements needed for future improvement and operation of the building," Williams wrote in a Nov. 20 memo.

After due diligence is complete, the City and WFHAC could enter into a "letter of commitment" that would initiate design and construction of capital improvements at the building.

To augment the $100,000 grant from CCTCA, WFHAC expects to acquire an additional $150,000 through other grants to help fund the due diligence phase. The City, meanwhile, would contribute staff time and agree to reserve $400,000 in general obligation (GO) bond proceeds for the project. Williams made clear, however, that the letter of intent would not formally obligate the City to spend that amount.

"You're not committing (the funds), but putting them on hold," Williams said at the meeting.

While councilors were universally in favor of the project, some expressed reservations about the $400,000 figure.

"I'm a bit leery about committing to that much when we haven't had that much information about what all the other (city) facilities need," City Councilor Teri Cummings said. "When you reserve it, it is a soft commitment because it impacts how you're going to balance the rest of (bond funding) against it."

"I think it's a mistake to put an actual number in there," City Councilor Rich Sakelik said. "We should put a real number on after the due diligence is completed."

Williams said a specific funding reservation was important to signal the City's commitment.

"We don't know what the actual number should be, but some sort of minimum commitment is important to them," he said.

Mayor Russ Axelrod and City Council President Brenda Perry had fewer reservations about funding, and Axelrod said he would even commit as much as $500,000 to the project.

In the end, the council settled on $400,000 as the figure to include in the letter of intent. Staff is expected to present a draft letter at the council's Dec. 10 meeting.

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