Sweet Home weighs options for 230-acre Quarry Park

By Benny Westcott
Of The New Era

The Sweet Home City Council on Tuesday, June 28, discussed the future of the city-owned 230-acre Quarry Park property directly north of 24th Avenue and south of the Santiam River.

Councilors were shown a blueprint of potential plans, which included an event grounds for concerts and sports, trails, camping and parking spaces, a gazebo/arbor space, an outdoor school/wetland learning center (the property includes four ponds) and a Sweet Home Economic Development Group office.

Councilors Dave Trask, Susan Coleman, Dylan Richards and Diane Gerson were present for the full meeting. Angelita Sanchez left early.

“We don’t want this to be a one-trick pony,” Community and Economic Development Director Blair Larsen said. “We want it to have as many attractions on it as possible, both to weather downturns in the economy and provide the most appeal to the broadest segment of the population in the area.”

The council directed city staff to create a request for proposal, or RFP, for private industry organizations that may be interested in developing the property.

“The purpose of an RFP like this would be to be completely transparent and up-front about what the development opportunities are, what the city is willing to do, and to hear from private developers on whether they want to play ball with us,” Larsen said.

The now-defunct Western States Land Reliance Trust acquired the property, formerly operated by Knife River, in the early 2000s for part of the failed Santiam River Club. Linn County assumed ownership of the land in December 2010 as a result of foreclosure on more than 400 acres against the firm for nonpayment of property taxes.

Then, in late 2017, county commissioners approved the transfer of the quarry to the city of Sweet Home. They’d initially intended to transfer it to the Sweet Home Economic Development Group (SHEDG) for use as the future home of the Oregon Jamboree. However, SHEDG declined after learning of the property taxes to be assessed.

“Given its history, it’s been assumed from the very beginning that this would be the future home of the Jamboree,” Larsen said.

The city now owns the land but is restricted to public use for a 20-year period that began in 2017. Therefore, the city cannot sell the property or lease it for any private use for the next 15 years, or it may revert back to the county.

“The county is the foreclosing entity, and when they get property through foreclosure, they are limited by state law on how they can dispose of that property,” Larsen said. “They can give it to another government for public use, or they can auction it off to the highest bidder, or a couple other options.”

However, public use can include commercial operations such as recreational facilities and concert venues. The city may enter into management or development agreements for the property if the actual use fits the term’s legal definition.

“This is something that we would want to be very, very careful with, and make sure that whatever we do fits within that category,” Larsen said. “Otherwise, we risk losing it.”

He noted that some governments own golf courses run by private entities under contract.

“It’s not unheard of to have a recreational facility that has an agreement to run it,” he said. “Fairgrounds, conference venues and that kind of thing also fall under this category.”

Access was one of the barriers for development, he said. A gravel road, Zelkova Street, runs into it on the east side, with some dirt and gravel roads also appearing on the property. According to Larsen, Zelkova is currently its only access.

“It’s not suitable for permanent facilities,” he said. “You can’t have a whole bunch of people, especially not for the needs of the Jamboree, going into it.”

The city has explored various access options. One would extend 24th Avenue north through the former Willamette Industries mill site, owned since February by Sweet Home Real Estate Restorations LLC. Larsen said a rail crossing was approved to allow that project to happen, and Restorations owner Josh Victor was willing to work with the city.

“That’s been a barrier up until now, but I think we now have a lot of reasons to be optimistic about additional access into that property,” Larsen said. “It mainly hinges on money at this point.”

Development ideas have been a topic of discussion for some time. Before its potential deal with the county fell through, SHEDG issued a 2016 document outlining a vision for the property that included campgrounds, ball fields, trails and music venues. City staff have also drafted various plans, but none have ever been officially presented to or adopted by the city council.

Larsen said that the cost of developing the property to its fullest potential was unknown but would likely reach well into the tens of millions of dollars.

“At the same time, the full buildout of the property could be a bigger economic boost to the city than any other project,” he noted.

He said city staff had spoken with local developers about partnering with a private entity, noting, “A project like this is exactly why public-private-partnerships [PPPs, or P3s] exist.”

A P3 is an arrangement between two or more public and private organizations, typically involving private capital financing of government projects, followed by drawing revenue from users over the contract’s course.

“Ultimately, what it comes down to is what a developer is willing to do and what they want for it, and what the city would have to give up and for how long,” Larsen said, adding that such partnerships “can vary greatly, from the city getting a percentage of whatever the company makes, or the company taking on the financing and charging the city some sort of rent for the city to manage or utilize the facility.”

“Whatever you could imagine and communicate on paper, you could put in place, if a private party is willing to do that,” he said. But the city would have to ensure that the contract was “rock-solid.”

“Take your time doing it, because the consequences if you have any loopholes could be quite severe to the city,” he warned.

He additionally noted that a city-drafted RFP could include contact information for neighboring properties that, like Quarry Park, could be developed and encourage responders to make parallel proposals for adjacent land.

“Ideally in this way, we would be able to promote development of multiple properties in the area,” he said. “If the full vision of this happens the way we want, you would have complementary uses on neighboring properties. For example, we’re not going to be able to get a hotel on the Quarry property. That wouldn’t be a real possibility when it comes to the restrictions we have in our land. However, a neighboring property would be ideal for a hotel that would serve patrons of the Quarry property.

“The great thing about such a process is that the council would be free to accept or reject proposals. If you see something you like, you can move forward with it. If none of the proposals make sense to you or seem to be a wise course of action for the city, you are free to reject all of them, no harm no foul.”

Even if the RFP process didn’t yield an actual contract, he said, the information alone would be helpful.

“You at least get the city’s name out there and make it clear that the city has an opportunity with this property,” he explained. “And you see who’s really paying attention, who’s willing to be a partner, and what it would cost. Maybe the cost is too high. We don’t know. But you’d have the information, and that would be valuable as the city seeks to move forward.

“I would recommend that this not be a quick process,” he continued. “This is something that we would very much want to take our time doing and be very thorough in the RFP to make sure that we’re not hurting ourselves or committing ourselves to anything that we’re not willing to do. We don’t want any accusations of unfair dealing or anything like that.”

He suggested that the city needed help from private industry.

“The chances of us being able to afford it ourselves and to find enough grant funding to develop this property ourselves are pretty slim,” he said. “This is something we could certainly develop over time if we chose to do it ourselves – and depending on how well the Jamboree does, there’d be some amount of cooperation from them, I’m sure. But when it comes to getting the property developed sooner rather than later, this would probably be the best course of action to take.”

“I’m for this,” Councilor Trask said. “We need to get going. But it’s going to take a long time.”

“I think that one of the things that must be considered is the safety of having paths around water,” Gerson said.

“Certainly, safety would be a concern as you’re developing,” Larsen replied. “There are many parks that are able to have ADA-compliant paths that are around bodies of water, and they’re able to make it work quite well. I’m sure that we can follow best practices when it comes to park development and make sure that they’re done in a safe manner.”

“Hopefully fishing would be involved, and maybe a play structure for children,” Coleman suggested.

Larsen stressed taking advantage of the property’s ponds.

“If any proposal from the private industry suggests having some sort of boat or kayak rental that’s right there for people to use on the ponds, that’s certainly a good recreational use that could fit in well there,” he said.

Trask expressed a desire for development to begin sooner rather than later.

“I would really like to maybe get a start with what we can afford, if we can get to that point,” he said. “It would be nice if we could get something going in the near future, maybe not in my time on council, but as soon as we could, and figure out how we can get that done.”