Fort Worden strategic plan proposes sweeping changes for campus

By Meredith Jordan
Posted 6/12/24

 

 

A draft of the strategic plan to address longstanding issues at the Fort Worden Lifelong Learning Center — among them an array of options including private development …

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Fort Worden strategic plan proposes sweeping changes for campus

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A draft of the strategic plan to address longstanding issues at the Fort Worden Lifelong Learning Center — among them an array of options including private development — is available for public comment through June 18.

Celeste Tell, acting executive director of the Fort Worden Public Development Authority (FWPDA), presented an overview of the report, along with its conclusions and recommendations, to the Port Townsend City Council on Monday, June 3.

The current 121-page plan was prepared over about five months by PROS Consulting, which specializes in strategic planning for parks, and by Tell and Mike Sternback, deputy director of Washington State Parks. PROS, which was paid a $60,000 consulting fee for its work on the strategic plan, also worked on the 2008 and 2012 plans. Consultants conducted in-depth interviews with more than 25 “partners, tenants, stakeholders and tribes” in preparing the report.

Besides private and public investment, recommendations include other options for managing the Lifelong Learning Center, redoing the master lease with state parks or taking ownership of the property, and reacquiring concessions and hospitality services. CHM Government Services, which focuses on asset management and public sector hospitality, was brought in as a subcontractor by PROS.

The Lifelong Learning Center campus comprises about 95 acres of the 434-acre Fort Worden, which is owned by Washington State Parks. The FWPDA was created in 2008 by the city of Port Townsend to manage the park under the terms of a master lease with the Washington State Parks Commission. A plan for the center was put in place at that time, and last updated in 2012.

But things haven’t gone as planned, and the FWPDA, which oversees 70-plus buildings most of them constructed between 1898 and 1920, has been besieged by financial problems. The report gives three primary reasons for that, starting with the Lifelong Learning Center being undercapitalized to begin with and lacking resources to meet obligations ever since. Next, it took on capital debt to build non-revenue generating facilities  on the leased property, which led to the organizing being overextended. The pandemic was the third strike. It “sent what was already becoming a growing concern into a death spiral,” according to the report.

At the end of fiscal 2023, the FWPDA had a little more than $300,000 cash on hand, and about $6.2 million in debt. That is connected to a municipal revenue bond that was issued in 2022, which rolled up previous bonds from 2021. Those funds stem from Maker’s Square project, which repurposed three buildings used during World War I and World War II into arts and education facility, and the glamping project, which was never finished. 

The recommendation that addresses the underlying relationship between local management and state parks  proposes either maintaining the existing co-management arrangement with the Washington State Parks Commission for the Lifelong Learning Center  — with restructured contracts and leases — or having the state transfer ownership of Fort Worden to the City of Port Townsend.

Mayor David Faber said during the meeting that the basis for the contract, which requires the PDA to maintain the buildings and all the infrastructure owned by state parks, was “always frankly absurd to think that was going to be possible.”

The recommendation likely to draw the most attention is one that would allow private investment as part of a multi-pronged financial approach. The estimated amount of money required to restore facilities is somewhere between $150 to $350 million over the next 10 years, according to PROS consultants. “That size of investment demands a multi-faceted approach that spreads the burden across multiple opportunities both in the public and private sectors.”

“The Consultant Team feels strongly that if we all looked at the campus through the lens of more intentional placemaking – being a great place to live, work, and play – it would help to generate ideas and alternative for adaptive reuse of existing facilities and recruiting new partners/tenants that also would have the ability to pay closer to market rates on the leases,” according to the report. “Adding in a residential component creates a captive audience to support food service and other new services on the campus.”

 

Examples of private sector fundraising partners in the report include medical, health and wellness, occupational therapy businesses or practices, additional visual, theater, applied and musical art businesses or organizations, general service businesses or organizations, and the Savannah College of Art and Design and Cascadia Bioregional Institute. 

The idea of outside development should be viewed from the larger perspective of the park being an important asset of Washington State Parks, said Libby Wennstrom. ADD QUOTE.

The strategic plan estimates the economic impact of Fort Worden to Jefferson County at about $84 million annually, and about $167 million to Washington State is about $167 million. Harder to define, Tell told the council, is the estimated $80.5 million consultants refer to as “consumer surplus,” which is a measurement of consumer benefits resulting from market competition.

Those first are part of a separate Economic Impact Analysis Report, to be released later this month, was not part of the initial contract with PROS, which recommended it shortly after starting the project. That $28,000 cost was supported by the Fort Worden Foundation (FWF), the City of Port Townsend Lodging Tax Advisory Committee (LTAC), Jefferson County, Brad and Christina Mace, and an anonymous community member.

The economic analysis was not part of the initial contract with PROS, which recommended it shortly after starting the project. The $28,000 cost was supported by the Fort Worden Foundation (FWF), the City of Port Townsend Lodging Tax Advisory Committee (LTAC), Jefferson County, Brad and Christina Mace, and an anonymous community member.

Wennstrom said during the council meeting that she looked forward to seeing more details from the economic impact report. She noted that similar numbers had been “game changer” for marine trades. It is one thing to know intellectually that something is extremely valuable and another to see it quantified.

The efforts of the group behind the strategic plan were praised by members of the city council. 

Council member Amy Howard said it was the first time she had seen the issues and proposed solutions laid out in such a “straightforward” manner.  “There is no way out of the quagmire if we don’t agree on what the problem statements are,” she said.

Faber said he hoped the implementation process would be more successful than previous efforts. “I would hate to see us backslide, to just being a state parks backwater. that they occasionally think about because something goes terribly wrong but otherwise lets it go effectively fallow.”

Tell said the next steps were the formulation of a working group that was to begin work immediately. “We’re going to lock ourselves in a room with a white board and see what we can come up with, and then “take that out quietly to break out groups, and get feedback.” Those all-day meetings were scheduled for June 10, 11 and 12. The working group includes the PROS consultant, Tell, Sternback, Robert Birman, the executive director of Centrum, and City Manager John Mauro.

Faber also talked about his personal connection to Fort Worden when he made his comments. “I grew up going to Centrum camps and hanging out at the beach or going to the science center when it was there,” Faber said, adding that it had been difficult for him to watch Fort Worden “decay from benign neglect.”

“It is a thorny issue but it would be devastating to the community to not have this level of local involvement at day to day at Fort Worden,” he said.