Plans are in motion to bring the Lifelong Learning Center at Fort Worden State Park to fruition.
On Thursday, Aug. 8 in Anacortes, the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission voted 6-0 to approve a master lease between Washington State Parks and the Fort Worden Lifelong Learning Center Public Development Authority (FWPDA).
A final review process is required before the agreement can be executed. The National Park Service (an office of the U.S. Department of the Interior) and the Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office must ensure that the lease does not encumber or violate any property deeds or titles in regard to Fort Worden.
The property remains state-owned property. The FWPDA would have a 50-year lease for the “upper campus” area, which includes about 90 acres and 70 buildings. The state would continue to manage the two campgrounds and Artillery Hill area.
The agreement is the result of a nearly two-year process to shift the park and conference center toward an enterprise business model, an idea first offered by Washington State Parks as a solution to declining general fund revenue and other budgetary constraints.
The FWPDA anticipates taking possession of the campus on May 1, 2014.
Stipulated in the lease are about a dozen benchmarks the FWPDA must reach 60, 90 and 120 days after the lease is signed.
Within 60 days, the FWPDA must provide the commission with documentation of a $300,000 mobilization (startup) fund, in addition to a minimum $250,000 line of credit, including a “comfort letter” from an accredited lender.
“We are in discussion with two financial institutions that have expressed confidence in our business plan,” said Dave Robison, FWPDA executive director.
Originally, the lease gave the FWPDA 90 days to accomplish this initial fundraising. Despite the 60-day timeline, Robison said he is confident in the organization’s ability to meet the benchmark.
“We now have a sense of urgency to build momentum, to go out and ask the people who have been watching us get to this point, to this lease that’s workable over 50 years, to ask them to invest in it,” Robison said.
Additional benchmarks include creating a coordinating committee and an operations work group. The committee is to consist of five people – two from the FWPDA, two from State Parks and a fifth selected by both parties – and would advise the entities on key issues and resolve any operational disputes. A detailed set of bylaws is to be drafted if the master lease is approved.
Both parties agreed this week that a tenant (campus partner) representative would not be eligible as the fifth member.
The work group, consisting of the park manager, the FWPDA campus manager and a tenant (partner) representative, would manage day-to-day operations.
Fort Worden was a U.S. Army post from 1902 to 1953. It became state property in the late 1950s, and has been a state park and conference center since 1973.
The Port Townsend City Council created the FWPDA in 2010 and appointed board members, but it operates independently of city government.
“By state law, the City of Port Townsend is not responsible for any financial obligations taken on by the PDA, such as a lease, a loan or a grant,” John Watts, city attorney, told the Leader.
Money raised by the FWPDA thus far has been spent on consultant fees and costs associated with operations, Robison said. The $300,000 fund is intended for a marketing plan, a new website, a new reservation system and partner-coordinated promotional activities. “This will allow us to hit the ground running when we take over [campus] operations.”
The $250,000 line of credit finances the entity’s first three years of operations, Robison said.
In addition to pursuing federal and state grant monies and tax credits to service capital improvement projects, the PDA also plans to approach private donors, Robison said.
“These contributions are public information, and will be available in regular finance reports and audits,” Robison said. “I anticipate that [financial] report will come before the board quarterly, if not more often, as our [FWPDA] revenues increase.”
State Parks and Recreation Commissioner Rodger Schmitt of Port Townsend reiterated that the lease signifies a partnership between State Parks and the FWPDA. It is in the best interest of both parties that the FWPDA succeed, he said at the Aug. 8 meeting in Anacortes.
“If the [FWPDA] is successful, then Fort Worden is successful and that means we [State Parks] don’t have a big hole in our budget to fill,” Schmitt said. “The [FWPDA] brings a lot to capital development. They can reach out to the public and private sector to save these historic structures in ways that State Parks cannot.”
Don Hoch, Washington State Parks director, added, “It’s a partnership. It’s to both our [State Parks’ and the FWPDA’s] benefits, so we are going to work closely to make sure that happens.”
At the meeting, Commissioner Mark Brown – the Washington Federation of State Employees deputy director from 1986 to 1993 – made the motion for lease approval. He said the 2013 Legislature had only provided the minimum funding level to keep existing parks open, and the biggest risk to Fort Worden’s future was the status quo of relying on dwindling state finances, so he made what he described as a “difficult” decision to move ahead with a plan that does change union jobs. The commission needed a unanimous vote to move the lease forward.
Several commissioners during the meeting stated they were looking at the “big picture” of State Parks as a whole, and not just union jobs or the current biennium budget. It was also noted that Fort Worden is a resource and asset for the entire state, not just for local residents or park employees.
About 40 people attended the Aug. 8 meeting. Seventeen people gave public testimony, including Dave Robison; Gary Cummins, Fort Worden Advisory Committee chair; park tenant representatives; Jeanine Livingston, compliance manager for the Washington Federation of State Employees; and members of the public.
The federation was outspoken in its opposition to the lease, saying the FWPDA process had been deceptive. Livingston said that benchmarks outlined by the commission in 2012 had not been met by the FWPDA despite its commitment to do so.
“You should not take these promises at face value. The federation has learned of numerous deceptions in terms of the process … intentional misrepresentations that are reflective of the internal strategies by this group of people [the FWPDA],” she said.
Livingston acknowledged that the FWPDA had produced a business plan as per the commission’s request, but that the organization [at the time of the lease approval] did not have a marketing plan or a plan for a “high value” project (besides Building 202, a low-occupancy dormitory slated to be converted into a school for use by Peninsula College and other educational programs).
“I urge you [commissioners] not to sign on the dotted line until these items are in place,” she said.
State Parks staff and FWPDA representatives commented that both parties were required to “give and take” in order to reach an agreement that “serves both parties’ best interests.”
Creating a staffing plan is one of the FWPDA’s first tasks, Robison said. He anticipates the FWPDA would hire about 10 full-time staff members by next May 1 to assist with the “seamless” transfer of reservation and hospitality services.
Shifting campus management to the FWPDA is likely to result in the elimination of all or a majority of the approximately 14 state jobs at Fort Worden State Park by year seven of the agreement – a point that has caused considerable contention between the organization, State Parks and the employees union.
“We were promised that this partnership would prevent the loss of jobs, which is now not the case,” Livingston said.
Original proposals by the FWPDA to assume certain staffing positions in year one have been amended to take place after year four. Several employees are eligible for retirement within the next four years. Others could have the option of applying for positions with the FWPDA.
“I’m telling staff that it is going to benefit us all for the PDA to be successful. I’ve asked [staff] to put their best foot forward and that this is the time to show the PDA how valuable they are,” Brian Hageman, Fort Worden State Park manager, told the Leader on Aug. 6.
State Parks staff and the federation are currently engaged in contract negotiations, said Hoch, so he declined to comment on how State Parks would address the concerns raised by union representatives.
City manager David Timmons told the Leader on Aug. 13 about preliminary discussions with Port Townsend Police Chief Conner Daily regarding law enforcement at Fort Worden.
Currently, park rangers are present 24 hours a day. Rangers Todd Jensen and Joe Moser reside in on-campus housing units; however, the lease stipulates that the FWPDA will take possession of the two dwellings.
After the FWPDA takes possession of the campus, park rangers would still patrol all of Fort Worden during daylight hours, said Hageman. Overnight, the FWPDA plans to have a hospitality clerk present to address visitor needs and engage local law enforcement if a situation should arise.
Jensen, the lead (senior) ranger at Fort Worden, attended the Aug. 8 meeting and cautioned the commission against such an agreement.
“Over the last 14 years I have responded to hundreds of calls after hours,” he said.
Hageman said the park does not keep an itemized log of what types of after-hours calls rangers respond to, be it a guest who locked themselves out of their accommodation or a more pressing public safety issue.
PTPD Chief Daily said he is working to access “call volume” – the frequency of officers reporting to the park and the type of calls officers are responding to – in order to gauge the effect on police staff. Timmons said the city is considering possible reimbursement options and service agreements with the FWPDA.
“Key to this arrangement is that no one will suffer as a result of the logistical [law enforcement] issues that are being worked out,” Daily said. “The bottom line is that if someone calls 911, from the fort or otherwise, we will respond.”