La Center candidates talk obstacles of a growing city

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ilani Casino celebrated its two-year anniversary in April, but so far not much has changed in neighboring La Center.

When the casino opened, city officials and residents were nervous about how the $510 million casino would hurt the city’s cardrooms, which brought in a bulk of tax revenue for the city. The more optimistic view on the casino was that it could bring more people — and, specifically, businesses — to north county.

As part of the casino build, the Cowlitz tribe paid $5 million for a sewer line extension to the La Center junction at Interstate 5. The tribe also paid for $32 million in upgrades at the junction itself, including new freeway offramps, partial relocation of a few roads and a new overpass over Interstate 5.

Mayor Greg Thornton said some major obstacles at the junction have been completed, and development is coming. However, he has a challenger for mayor in the November election, Brittney Tracy, who isn’t pleased with how the city is being run. Councilor Elizabeth Cerveny, former La Center mayor, also has a challenger for her seat on the council in Linda Tracy, a former La Center councilor. Linda Tracy is Brittney Tracy’s mother.

Mayoral race

Thornton said the city’s development department staff are processing an application for a proposed commercial development at the junction that would include a hotel, retail space and a restaurant. Construction could start next year, he said.

“The city also continues to work with engineers, consultants and developers to identify and prioritize critical infrastructure improvements which will remove barriers and support future development opportunities at the La Center junction as well as other areas in the city,” Thornton said.

Brittney Tracy said the land at the junction should be a priority for the city.

“We need more business in La Center to help bring more revenue to the city,” she said. “With the closure of two of our four casinos in town, La Center is struggling with business tax revenue.”

That’s partly why Brittney Tracy was disappointed when the city purchased the TDS building.

“That took it away from business owners that could develop it,” she said. “I know there is new building going in by the (La Center Market Place), so hopefully that brings in new business. We need to try and find a way to make our town marketable to business coming in. We have more and more population and not many places to go in town. I know we want to keep the town small and sleepy, but we still need tax revenue coming in and need to figure out a way to make that happen.”

Thornton said gambling revenues were “down significantly” in 2018 when compared with previous years, and down again in the first quarter of 2019. However, he said revenues were higher in the second and third quarters of this year when compared with the same periods in 2018. Still, Thornton knows the city can’t rely on gambling tax revenues like it used to, which is why he wants to see the council finance a planned action area study.

“The goal of a planned action area study is to simplify and expedite environmental review of future individual projects in a study area,” he said. “Detailed and comprehensive environmental analysis occurs up front during the planning stage for a study area, streamlining the permit review process and reducing uncertainty related to the timing, developability and other constraints associated with significant commercial or industrial developments within the study area.”

While the businesses might not be coming to La Center as quickly as officials want, new residents are making their way to the city. In 2015, the city issued 13 building permits for new homes, and this year La Center is on track to issue nearly 100 permits, Thornton said. That number is expected to be around 180 in 2020.

“The city is experiencing new commercial development and a new middle school is expected to be built next year,” Thornton said. “Although the growth does grow the city’s tax base, new development places increasing demands on city services and infrastructure. Bringing expenditures in line with our diminished revenues, even with significant residential growth, continues to be challenging.”

Brittney Tracy isn’t pleased with how Thornton has run the city, and said he has cut too many jobs and community events so that “the town is being run by secretaries.

“We need to bring back all the community events that made La Center special,” she said. “I would love to see more things in town for our kids to do. We also need to get knowledgable people back in positions that run our city.”

Council Position 5

The two candidates for Position 5 both said a few different issues have slowed development at the junction.

“Much of the delay preventing development at the I-5 junction has been due to the ongoing legal proceedings filed by Friends of Clark County and Futurewise, opposing the city of La Center and the city of Ridgefield’s annexations along the I-5 junction, and Clark County’s adherence to the rules within the Growth Management Act,” Cerveny said.

Those lawsuits were filed in 2016. In August, the Washington State Court of Appeals issued a ruling protecting expansions in both of those cities.

Linda Tracy said part of the issue is the city doesn’t have a lot of developable land.

“The city was working with consultants as far back as 10 years ago trying to find ways to entice commercial and industrial businesses to choose La Center,” she said. “It’s still a work in progress. Much of the junction (land) we control is restricted because of wetlands and steep terrain.”

Another potential issue for La Center is the county’s proposed development of more than 2,000 acres north of Vancouver. Some in north county have said the development of that region will not only take away from the more rural feel to Clark County, but could negatively impact small north county cities by taking away business.

“It makes be a little sad that the area around the fairgrounds would become so built up,” Linda Tracy said. “I realize there are huge traffic impacts when there are events at the (Sunlight Supply) Amphitheater and it sounds like the road improvements would help that, but it also sounds like we’d have years of traffic snarls caused by making those improvements. I enjoy when I go the back way to Salmon Creek, that I see cows and horses in the pastures along 179th (Street). I’m not a big fan of the development.”

Cerveny’s initial concerns on the development are that she wants to make sure it is planned for long-term infrastructure needs.

“My hopes would be that a larger portion of the property be additional job creation rather than housing being the higher percentage, as this is much needed for Clark County,” she said.

Cerveny said the biggest issue facing the city is diversifying its economic development, although that’s not the only issue.

“Transportation improvements are also important to maintain safe traffic flows in and out of the city with only one bridge,” she said. “This is a major concern for the current council, and I would certainly see this remaining an issue for the city until fully addressed in the future. With over 400 additional residential houses currently being planned, the community will face significant impacts on its infrastructure and its schools.”

Linda Tracy said the growing population has created a strain on school resources, with the need for more portable classrooms to fit all the students.

“Because of the developments, we’re also dealing with huge trucks on our city streets, causing traffic hazards,” she said. “These streets will have to be repaired at some point at a huge cost to us. That’s a concern.”


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