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Friday Harbor Town Council votes 3-2 to stay with farmers market project; purchase deadline believed extended to June 30

While the Nichols Street site is commonly referred to as the
While the Nichols Street site is commonly referred to as the 'permanent farmers market site,' a farmers market is only one component. The former Friday Harbor Electric site would have green space larger than the Sunken Park lawn, an outdoor performance stage, and an outdoor market area. Architect David Waldron describes it as 'part small park and part town square.' This rendering looks at the revitalized site from Sunshine Alley.
— image credit: Architect David Waldron

Initially, the clock seemed to be working against the Nichols Street farmers market proposal.

The Friday Harbor Town Council, feeling pressed to commit lodging tax funds to the project despite unanswered questions as a Dec. 18 deadline approached, almost backed out of the deal Dec. 3.

Thursday, the project went into extra innings. And the project took on new life.

First, the owners of the property, Bill and Joan Erickson, have said they are willing to extend the closing date to June 30. Without that extension, they could put the property back on the market.

Second, state Sen. Kevin Ranker is reportedly working to find state funding for the restoration of the historic building that would house the farmers market, the century-old Boede Cement Plant building. That would ease the fund-raising demands on the San Juan Islands Agricultural Guild, which must raise money for the building's restoration.

Third, Councilwoman Liz Illg, who works for the San Juan Islands Scenic Byway program, said an interpretive center on the Nichols Street property could qualify for Scenic Byway funding. Another possible source of funding: the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Fourth, Councilwoman Carrie Lacher raised an idea someone presented to her as an answer to parking concerns near the proposed market: Make Nichols and Web streets one-way streets with angled parking.

Fifth, Mayor David Jones, whose last day as mayor is Dec. 31, has offered to work pro bono on a business plan for the project after he leaves office.

The Town Council voted 3-2 to commit to working with the San Juan County Land Bank and the San Juan Islands Agricultural Guild toward purchasing the Nichols Street site for a permanent farmers market and other tourism-related uses. A six-page memorandum of understanding between the three agencies contains contingencies from the town that must be satisfied before the town would commit lodging tax money for the purchase. The contingencies must be satisfied one month before the closing.

The memorandum of understanding is not legally binding. The agreement doesn't preclude another funding source from contributing enough money to make the town's financial participation unnecessary. And if the Ericksons do not extend the deadline for the closing date, then the agreement doesn't move forward.

"This is designed to slow the process down," Town Attorney Don Eaton said. "With the extension, it does just that."

The contingencies address concerns expressed by council members and residents at previous public meetings about the project — concerns that they felt made the project too risky. The memorandum of agreement requires:

— An appraisal of the value of the historic and conservation easement showing value of between $360,000 and $440,000.
— The Land Bank must place $400,000 into an escrow account.
— The Ag Guild shall have $100,000 on hand or pledged toward the cost of renovating the historic building.
— The town shall obtain confirmation from the state auditor, or an opinion from the state attorney general, that lodging tax funds can be used for the purchase of the site.
— The Town Council shall deem satisfactory the terms of the historic and conservation easements, the site lease with the Ag Guild, and any restrictions the town Historic Preservation Review Board might require.

In the memorandum, the town, Ag Guild and Land Bank agree to four common goals:

— That the historic building on the property be restored and preserved as a significant historic structure.
— That the property serve as the location for a permanent home for the San Juan Farmers Market, as well as a location for other events, such as an arts and crafts market.
— That the property include a green space, essentially undeveloped and open to the public.
— That the property also serve as the location for developing and operating a tourism-related facility, like an interpretive center.

Councilwoman Carrie Brooks voted "no" because she wanted a parking solution to be one of the contingencies. Councilman Noel Monin voted "no," saying the council had just received the memorandum of understanding and he wanted more time to review it.

While the Nichols Street site is commonly referred to as the "permanent farmers market site," a farmers market is only one component. The former site would have a public green space larger than the Sunken Park lawn, an outdoor performance stage, and an outdoor market area. Architect David Waldron has described it as "part small park and part town square." The old Boede Cement Plan building would have indoor market space and a commercial kitchen.

The Ag Guild has negotiated a purchase of the property for $775,000. The Land Bank would contribute $400,000 and in exchange would receive a historic preservation easement on the Boede Cement building and a conservation easement on the open space. The town would contribute $375,000 and, in exchange, would own the site. The Ag Guild would lease it from the town and sublease it to other vendors. The Ag Guild would also renovate the building, to the tune of about $162,000.

In previous meetings, town officials and residents worried that the town would have to reimburse its lodging tax fund if the state auditor determined later that the project is not a “tourism-related facility” that qualifies for an investment of lodging tax money. They also worried about the market's impacts on parking and traffic, and what limitations the Land Bank’s easements would put on the site being sold if the venture failed.

Thursday, Town Council members were confident the memorandum of understanding and the closing date extension provide the time to get the questions answered.

Illg told Eaton she was impressed with the memorandum of understanding, that it is "responsive to the public's concerns" and summarizes neatly the common goals of the three entities.

Lacher said the memorandum of understanding is "a way forward for us" and "an opportunity to do something really historic." She said the proponents have time to "look for creative solutions to problems that we might find along the way" by the May 30 deadline.

Monin was still concerned about risk to the town's already-precarious finances.

"While I appreciate the vision, there are no guarantees," he said. Noting the proposed park at the Nichols Street site, he said the town cut its parks budget so it could support the utility payment assistance program. "We can't take care of the parks we have," he said.

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