State parks commission OK is key step toward local Fort Worden co-management

By Charlie Bermant
Peninsula Daily News

PORT TOWNSEND — An agreement with the state for some local control of Fort Worden State Park has moved forward with the approval of a business plan that provides a roadmap for dual management.

The state Parks and Recreation Commission unanimously approved the plan developed by the Fort Worden Lifelong Learning Center Public Development Authority during a meeting Thursday afternoon in Monroe

The move sets the stage for meetings between State Parks and the Port Townsend-based public development authority, or PDA, to negotiate the next steps for eventual co-management of the picturesque Fort Worden complex.

“This has been a long road, and we’ve spent a lot of time on this,” said PDA Executive Director Dave Robison after the meeting in the Snohomish County town.

“It’s time for us to move forward in an actual partnership with the state parks system and to clear up some of the uncertainties.”

In its business plan, the PDA identified capital improvements needed at the former Army base that total approximately $89 million.

The plan states that while State Parks will continue to seek capital-project funding for its needs and responsibilities at the park as part of its biennial money requests from the state Legislature, the PDA will work to raise funds and investments needed for these improvements.

The business plan breaks down capital improvements into distinct projects, and the PDA will be expected to identify one high-value project and plan for early completion.

By doing this, the PDA will instill confidence in the community and build support for future capital improvement projects, according to the plan approved Thursday.

The PDA will take over management of all of the campus buildings while State Parks provides the infrastructure.

But the question remains as to the points where the responsibility begins and ends.

The origin of the $550,000 in startup funds needed by the PDA also is undetermined, Robison said.

Another uncertainty comes from any staff changes or layoffs that might occur among the 110 state park employees if the PDA assumes management — an issue that has been repeatedly raised by Washington Federation of State Employees Contracting Compliance Manager Jeanine Livingston.

Robison said he would like the PDA to hire some or all of those who now work for the park should they be laid off by the state

“The people who work at the park have a great deal of institutional knowledge, and we would like to find a place for them,” he said.

Robison said a specific schedule has not been determined but said meetings would begin after the first of the year.

The first six months of 2013 will be used for the development of the co-management plan, and the next six months will be taken to implement the plan in anticipation of a Jan. 1, 2014, startup date.

As development of the co-management agreement moves forward, public meetings will be held along the way to allow for public review and comment, according to a State Parks news release.

The idea to develop the former Army installation decommissioned in 1952 into an educational facility known as a lifelong learning center was first discussed in 2004.

It has been addressed incrementally since then, most significantly with the development of a business plan starting in 2008 that outlined how a partnership will work.

Included in the plan was the recognition that State Parks needs a nonprofit partner to assist with the governance and management of Fort Worden.

The process kicked into high gear at the beginning of this year when park manager Kate Burke was bumped from her job by a more senior State Parks employee.

One of the PDA’s priorities was to find a position for Burke, who has since moved on to a position with Jefferson Healthcare hospital.

The PDA held a series of public meetings this year about the possibility of a joint operating agreement, which segued into the development of the business plan that was approved by the state parks commission Thursday.

The most vocal opposition during the earlier town meetings was directed against the PDA assuming ownership of the park, an idea that was quickly withdrawn.

The plan was submitted at the end of October, and the parks commission approved it unanimously during the meeting in Monroe, which PDA directors attended.

“We are optimistic about this,” Robison said.

“It is in everyone’s best interest, the parks department and the PDA, to enter into an effective joint management agreement for Fort Worden.”

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Jefferson County Reporter Charlie Bermant can be reached at 360-385-2335 or at charlie.bermant@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: December 08. 2012 5:57PM
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