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Youth Center Idea Aparks Controversy

City looks at locations for police station

With the Park Center building reverting to the control of the White Salmon Valley School District this fall, the city of White Salmon is hunting for a new location for the Bingen-White Salmon Police Department.

The Police Department, currently housed in one corner of the Park Center, is cramped and inadequate. But with budgets tight, suitable locations scarce, and time beginning to run out, options are few.

Police Chief Rich Cortese said the time frame to vacate the Park Center is basically the end of this year.

"That's why I've been running around for months trying to figure out where we're going to go," Cortese explained. "We can stay here [Park Center] in the interim, but we need to find a place."

One option the city has been exploring is to use property now in use as the Community Youth Center, located at 453 E. Jewett. The building and land are owned by the city of White Salmon.

However, that idea, and the way it was handled, has run into a storm of controversy.

"The kids know what is going on," explained Linda Schneider, executive director of the Washington Gorge Action Programs (formerly Klickitat-Skamania Development Council). "A couple weeks ago, the police chief came out there with a tape measure and started measuring the property, and when he didn't come into the building, they got concerned. And then a couple days later, he came back with a contractor. The kids are afraid and wondering what's going to happen to them."

Schneider met with White Salmon Mayor Linda Jones and Public Works Director Wil Keyser on July 14 to discuss the city's ideas about the Youth Center facility.

According to Schneider, city officials discussed a plan to sell the old library building, at 142 E. Jewett. The money raised from that could purchase a modular building, which would be placed at the Youth Center site as a new police station.

"The intent is to demolish the Youth Center building," said Schneider. "They've considered several options, but the most attractive is to use the Youth Center site because the city owns the property."

"We have to find more room, and we're going to have to move out of the Park Center. Rather than something temporary, we'd like to find something permanent. Putting modulars there [where Youth Center building is] is one of the options," said Mayor Jones.

Schneider pointed out that more than 100 young people are enrolled at the Youth Center, with an average of 27 kids a day coming to the building. The facility has operated there since 1994 under a lease agreement with the city.

"The city said they will accommodate and assist the Youth Center with finding another location," Schneider said. "They said this option is just in the consideration stage, but as the meeting went on it sounded like a decision had already been made."

Mayor Jones said that was not the case.

"The meeting was to let them know we were looking at that real estate as an option for the police department," Jones explained. "That's just one option. We'll be presenting options to the City Council sometime in August. We don't have all our homework done yet."

Members of the White Salmon City Council said they objected to the way the search was being handled.

Penny White Morris said she felt the council was being bypassed.

"Especially since I'm on the Police Committee," Morris said. "That's my committee, and I had no idea what was going on. I feel totally out of the loop when Linda Schneider calls me and tells me they're taking measurements. I just wished we'd sat down with the kids before going out there and taking measurements, for crying out loud. At least talk with Linda [Schneider] and let them know what we were doing. It was horribly managed."

Council member Susan Benedict also expressed concern.

"The mayor has not contacted me, and I chair the Real Estate Committee," said Benedict. "Usually these things go to the committee, then the committee makes recommendations. We're not much a part of what's going on lately. It's kind of frustrating. Why are we the last to know?"

Jones said the complaints were undeserved.

"We just came up with this option about a week ago," Jones said. "We haven't had the opportunity to bring it to the council yet. As soon as this option came up, we decided to have this meeting with the Youth Center, so they could give their input and know we were looking at that."

Jones said the possibility of selling the library building was just one of many ideas under consideration.

"That's an option, but it's up to the City Council," Jones said.

Jones stressed that no decisions have yet been made.

"Not until we get more information and discuss it with the City Council. Perhaps we'll have a work session on our options. If that's the case, Linda [Schneider] will be invited to that," Jones said.

According to Morris, negotiations are under way between the city and the school district to relocate the Youth Center's operations at the Park Center.

Morris added that the Park Center would be a good place for it.

"The Youth Center might actually be better all around at the Park Center," Morris said. "They would have access to the park, tennis courts, basketball courts, the pool. It might be a better location."

Schneider added that she would not object to a move if the new facilities were comparable to the space they have now.

"I understand things change, and we would be perfectly happy to move," Schneider said. "But with the budget we have, we don't have money to pay rent."

Schneider questioned why no members of the City Council were at last week's meeting.

"It was amazing to me that all these city staff are there and know all the options, but the City Council was not told," Schneider said. "My concern is that the City Council has not been involved in this process. There is a lot of experience and expertise on the council, and it's unfortunate they have not been included."

In recent years, the city of White Salmon has paid for a series of improvements to the Youth Center building. Upgrades included re-roofing, insulating, replacing gutters, replacing flooring, and remodeling the rest-rooms in the building.

Benedict said it would be a waste to tear down the building after the city had invested so much money in it in recent years.

"That seems like a shame," Benedict said. "That building is so nice. We've put a lot of money into that building, so to consider tearing it down is just ridiculous."

Schneider pointed out there were donations to support the Youth Center from several sources, and not solely from the city of White Salmon.

Figures provided by Washington Gorge Action Programs showed that Klickitat County contributed $15,000, the city of Bingen, $3,000; the Community Network, $3,500; the Rotary Club, $2,500; various churches around the community, $1,301; United Way, $1,000; private donations, $1,160; and fundraising by the young people enrolled in the Youth Center program brought in another $820.

"It is not our agency's Youth Center, it really is the community's Youth Center," said Schneider, "and it's important that the community be a part of the process."

Bingen Mayor Brian Prigel said he is among those who doesn't want to see the Youth Center building lost.

"I'd heard the city was looking at potentially tearing that building down and putting in modulars for Police Department use. I hope not. That's not a good site, and people would not be happy about putting in a modular," Prigel said.

Prigel conceded the search for a place to site a new police station would not be an easy one.

"It's asking a lot to find a suitable place. There aren't too many places that have the right combination of parking, access, and office space," Prigel explained.

Police Chief Cortese said however it came together, his department needed a suitable headquarters.

"We still need a place. We're looking at everything. We're supportive of the Youth Center, we're not going to boot them out," he said. "If you have any ideas, give me a call."

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