Homer residents fight new city hall

Town square project bond measure fails in special election by 2-1 margin

Posted: Thursday, March 27, 2008

It's time to start looking for a Plan B.

Homer voters Tuesday soundly defeated a general obligation bond measure that would have authorized the city to borrow up to $8 million to help pay for a new city hall/town square project.

By a 2-1 margin, Homer voters halted momentum of and may have postponed indefinitely a rapidly moving plan to complete design work and begin construction of an $11.8 million project this summer.

Turnout was relatively high for a special election. Of the 4,253 registered voters in Homer, 1,159 ballots were cast or 27 percent of voters, including 153 absentee and special needs ballots, that will be counted Friday.

During the last city special election on March 22, 2005, only 19 percent of registered voters cast their ballot to raise the city's sales tax.

Of the 1,006 ballots cast on Tuesday, 676 voted against the bond proposal. Supporters of the plan said the fast track was needed in order to begin construction soon and avoid cost increases estimated to be about $1 million for each year the project is delayed.

But with such a lopsided defeat at the polls, city officials and town center supporters are scratching their heads about the project and are heading back to the drawing board. City Manager Walt Wrede is on vacation until the end of the week and Anne Marie Holen, the city's special projects coordinator, said she didn't know what the next step will be.

Council member Dennis Novak said he hopes the city will be able to implement some of the economic development aspects of the plan, but said the message given by voters was clear there isn't community support for building a new city hall or $8 million of indebtedness.

"You have to look at all the implications of what the voters have done here," Novak said. "It's pretty significant, it's huge."

Hopes of getting future grants or other financial options for the project are pretty much dead, he said, and when the town decides it needs to build, it's going to be much more expensive.

"We have to decide were we want to go from here," he said.

To that end, the council is holding a special meeting on Tuesday at 7 p.m. to discuss options.

The vote was disappointing to town center supporters, like Kachemak Heritage Land Trust director Barb Seaman, who have been working for more than 10 years on developing the more than 30 acres of land owned by the city, KHLT, Cook Inlet Region Inc. and other private landowners located in the middle of the Sterling Highway, Pioneer Avenue, Main Street and the Poopdeck Trail.

Seaman said she still needed time to process the vote Wednesday morning.

"The people have spoken, I'm extremely disappointed. And I think it will be an extremely expensive project down the road," she said.

According to supporters, the new city hall would have served as the civic anchor for town center development, encouraged economic growth and created a much-needed vibrant downtown.

It would have also allowed the University of Alaska Anchorage-Kachemak Bay Campus to consolidate by buying and moving into the current city hall building.

Council member Mike Heimbuch said he expects to see a push in the near future by many people to review the use of the old Homer Intermediate school building to a new city hall to facilitate the university purchase of the old city hall. Another idea may be to encourage CIRI to build the new city hall and have the city lease it back, he said.

There's a lot of factors that went into the vote, Heimbuch said, including the area's rising cost of living and property taxes.

"It's not necessarily a reflection of what they think of municipal planning or the design of town center," he said.

Economics played a large role in some voter's minds Tuesday.

Homer resident Kevin Hogan said the city should have asked the voters in the beginning of the process instead of somewhere in the middle.

"I think it sends a message to the city council," Hogan said. "I don't think the public is behind their dream."

Hogan said voters want the city to stop growing government and start growing the local economy.

"So many people come to this town and have to leave," he said. Hogan pointed to an increase in the number of ministorage facilities popping up around town as a testament to an increasingly transient population.

"What that says is that you've got people coming to town and not making it," he said.

Several critics of the bond said economics played a role in the voters' decision, but they also had plenty of questions that weren't adequately answered despite several town meetings, public forums and pages of information in the local media and on the Web.

"As a businessman, if I were to bring that much of an incomplete package to my lender he would have laughed at me," said Terry Yager, owner of ReMax real estate company in Homer.

Yager said he wasn't particularly opposed to a new city hall or the university expanding, but said many people he talked to felt they didn't have enough information to authorize a bond sale of up to $8 million.

Of the project's $11.8 million estimated price tag, more than $3.7 million had been raised so far, including funds appropriated by the Alaska Legislature for construction of a new Homer city hall and funds UAA has to purchase and renovate the existing city hall.

The design of the city hall building and plaza is currently at 35 percent and includes a 20,000-square-foot city hall building and a 3,000-square-foot meeting hall and council chambers.

The city could proceed with plans to build a version of the project and find another source of funds to pay for it that doesn't require a vote by the public, but at this point such a plan isn't in the works. The last vote that centered around town center came in June of 2004. By a vote of 63 to 36 percent, Homer residents voted for a 60,000-square-foot retail building cap size, hoping to lure Fred Meyer to build a building in town center.

That plan ultimately failed when Fred Meyer backed out of the process, but some voters still wonder what might have been.

"I would have much preferred that (the city) would have worked on Fred Meyer as hard as they worked on city hall," Yager said.

Ben Stuart can be reached at ben.stuart@homernews.com.

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