Morgan Center for sale? - Bremerton Parks wants property for the city if Legislature approves its closure

Before the Legislature even decides whether Bremerton’s Frances Haddon Morgan Center will close this year, city officials are exploring what they can do with the property.

They are also investigating whether they can come up with the money to buy it.

Gov. Chris Gregoire proposed in December to close the center that houses 54 severely autistic residents by June 30 to help close a $4.6 billion state budget hole. The move, coupled with the proposed closure of a similar facility in Yakima, would save the state $2.2 million in the 2011-2013 budget cycle and $5 million during the 2013-2015 budget period, according to the Office of Financial Management.

In anticipation of the closure, the Bremerton City Council will vote Feb. 2 to turn over to the state a half-acre easement on the 15-acre property. If the measure is approved, the state can sell the entire 15 acres as a whole to government agencies or private developers.

The city wants to buy the entire lot, but it may not have the money, plus in the pecking order of who gets first crack at the property, the city comes after the state and county.

“If there’s at least a chance of exploring the future use of the property, we’d like to do that,” Parks and Recreation Director Wyn Birkenthal said.

The Bremerton Parks and Recreation Commission voted 6-1 Dec. 14 recommending that the City Council vote to release the easement to the state, with the stipulation that the city discuss potential public uses of the Sixth Street property with the state and Bremerton School District. State officials say that while the property could be offered to Bremerton, the city still has to fall in line behind the state and the county.

The Legislature has not yet passed a 2011-2013 budget that would make the Morgan Center’s closure official, so the property cannot go up for sale until Gregoire signs the passed budget, not likely to happen until after the legislative session is scheduled to adjourn April 24. However, Parks and Recreation already wants to find ways Bremerton can use the land.

No concrete uses for the property have been proposed, Birkenthal added, but some ideas include building playground space and ball fields, which would extend the adjacent Forest Ridge Park, or allowing the Bremerton School District to acquire the land to build a new school.

The policy of the state Department of General Administration, which would manage the sale of the property, is to offer state property to other government agencies before opening it to private developers — state agencies receive first priority, followed by counties, cities, municipalities and special districts, the federal government and, lastly, recognized tribes.

Birkenthal, however, wants Bremerton to have the right of first refusal — the ability to decide whether the city can buy the property before any other agencies or private developers have the option to buy it — in order to buy time and devise a plan for the land.

A spokesman for General Administration, however, said Bremerton won’t have that right.

“The city will have the opportunity to submit a bid, but that’s different from the saying city has some sort of exclusive right,” spokesman Jim Erskine said.

The city’s half-acre easement on the property does not give the city any authority over the property once it is turned over to the state, regardless of how the Parks Commission voted, he added.

The possibility of seeing the land go to a private developer irks Bob Dollar, the only parks commissioner who voted against the group’s recommendation to give the easement to the state. West Bremerton would be better served by a community center, park or new middle school, he said.

“I don’t want to see this thing sold out from under the City of Bremerton without us having a say in it,” Dollar said, adding he wants the city to fight for the property. “I want to bicker.”

Instead, he sees the chance to improve the city slip away.

“Nobody’s really thinking about it,” Dollar said.

Even if Bremerton does get the opportunity to buy the land, Birkenthal doesn’t know where the money would come from. If the property were to go up for sale in the next few months, the city has no money to purchase it. Parks and Recreation had to secure bonds in the past year to help pay for the Lions Park renovations and the rest of the department’s projects are paid for by grants.

“Short of some kind of grant or property swap, I don’t know how we could secure it,” Birkenthal said. “That’s a tough one.”

Nonetheless, Birkenthal hopes the city will have enough time to find money and decide what the city can do with the property.

“We don’t want to say if the property goes up for sale, there’s nothing we can do,” he said. “At this point, we’re not willing to completely give up on it.”

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