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Town pulls out of farmers market project; Ag Guild says it remains committed to project
The Friday Harbor Town Council voted 3-2 Thursday to pull out of the proposed purchase of the permanent farmers market site, saying there's no guarantee the contribution of lodging tax funds for the purchase will clear the state auditor.
Council members Carrie Brooks and Noel Monin voted to pull out. They were joined by freshman Councilman Felix Menjivar.
The council voted 3-2 Dec. 17 to stay with the project, with conditions. Carrie Lacher was a council member then and voted with the majority. Thursday, as mayor, she had no vote.
San Juan Islands Agricultural Guild Project Director Lovel Pratt said Friday the guild will seek new funding for the purchase of the Friday Harbor Electric site on Nichols Street for a permanent farmers market site.
"The Ag Guild is committed to moving forward with the project," she said Friday. "We're confident we'll find other funding sources. We're disappointed, but we're committed to the project."
The Ag Guild must now raise the $375,000 previously committed by the town. The Land Bank is committing $400,000 in real estate excise tax money in exchange for a historic preservation easement.
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 which, connected to the lawn next door at Nichols Walk, would be larger than the Sunken Park lawn. It would also have an outdoor performance stage and an outdoor market area. The old Boede Cement Plant building would have indoor market space and a commercial kitchen.
Architect David Waldron has described the site as proposed as "part small park and part town square."
The owners of the property, Bill and Joan Erickson, have set a closing date to June 30. If the Ag Guild doesn't purchase the property by then, it could be put back on the market. In December, the Ericksons extended the closing date six months.
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 Ag Guild, which must raise money for the building's restoration.
Liz Illg, a former Town Council member 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.
And in December, 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.
Six-page memorandum of understanding
The Town Council in December approved a six-page memorandum of understanding between the town, Ag Guild and Land Bank three agencies, containing contingencies that must be satisfied before the town would commit lodging tax money for the purchase. The contingencies were to be satisfied one month before the closing.
The contingencies addressed 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.
In December, Brooks voted "no" because she wanted a parking solution to be one of the contingencies. Monin voted "no," saying the council had just received the memorandum of understanding and he wanted more time to review it.
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.
In December, Lacher called the memorandum of understanding "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 closing date.
But at the same tine, 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.