Park district could lose funds if project continues to lag

A state official overseeing two public grants for the Vashon Park District’s fields complex north of town said the district needs to complete phase one by June 30 or face losing $21,000 in funding for the project.

A state official overseeing two public grants for the Vashon Park District’s fields complex north of town said the district needs to complete phase one by June 30 or face losing $21,000 in funding for the project.

Laura Moxham, an outdoor recreation grants manager with the Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office, toured the half-finished site next to The Harbor School last week, her first visit since last summer. Little work has gotten done since her last visit, even though one of the two state grants — funding for phase one — expired nearly a year ago, she said.

“Typically, when an agreement expires, the scope should be done. At this point the scope is not done. … Obviously, that’s a concern for our agency,” she said.

Vashon Youth Baseball and Softball secured the $75,000 grant for the park district project in 2008, pledging to use the money to build a baseball field, backstop, dug-outs and spectator benches and to provide handicapped-accessible parking at the site.

The state has paid out $54,000 in grant money — reimbursement for work that’s already been done — but won’t pay anymore until the first phase of the project is finished, Moxham said. If the project isn’t completed, she added, “There’s a chance the sponsor might have to pay the money back.”

The park district, meanwhile, has to complete phase two and three — the southern half of the project — by June 30 as well. The park district received a $500,000 grant for the final two phases, $131,000 of which it has yet to receive. Moxham said her office won’t reimburse funding for that second and third phase until she sees that the project is nearing completion.

“At this point, we’re holding all the money until there’s some assurance we’ll have a viable recreation complex in place,” she said.

The project at the five-acre site  — fields for baseball, soccer, lacrosse and football, as well as bleachers, lighting, restrooms, a concession stand and a plaza — was to be completed by April 2010. Its initial budget was pegged at $1.1 million, with $575,000 coming from the two state grants and the rest from the park district, a fundraising campaign and in-kind contributions by user groups and other champions of the project. Construction costs are now thought to have reached $1.7 million, with about $300,000 in work still outstanding, according to park district officials.

The park district has already received two extensions for the $500,000 grant and will have to go before the state Recreation and Conservation Office’s board of directors if it decides to seek a third extension, Moxham said. No more extensions are possible for the first grant, she said.

Joe Wald, who chairs the park district and is overseeing the fields project for the agency, did not return telephone calls. But the park board’s newest commissioner, John Hopkins, said he’s hopeful that with some good project management over the next few months the project can be completed.

“What I want to do is to get agreement on a plan. What is lacking now is a definitive plan — what needs to be done and who’s going to do it and what it will cost,” Hopkins said.

“It’s very difficult to track what’s happened,” he added. “And we can’t go forward on that basis. My top priority is to put together a plan and to get an agreement that we’ll stick to it.”

Lu-Ann Branch, another commissioner, also voiced frustration by the way the project’s been handled. “I’m continuously frustrated by what I keep finding. And what I’m finding is that there’s not a sense of how to manage this project,” she said.

At the same time, she added, she too is optimistic that the project can be wrapped up quickly. “I don’t think it’s as complicated as it sounds for the fields to be completed,” she said.

But a group of islanders bird-dogging the project said they’re concerned that the park district may not have the cash it needs to complete work at the fields, even though the project has a $95,000 line item in the budget. The group has been meeting frequently and poring over the agency’s 2013 budget numbers. Five of them — Hilary Emmer, CC Stone, Andy Niss, Truman O’Brien and Steve Sussman — attended the fields tour with Moxham. Mike Mattingly, the volunteer project supervisor, also toured the site with Moxham.No commissioners, nor anyone from the soccer, baseball or other user groups, were in attendance.

“They don’t have the money to spend,” Sussman said of the park district. “The budget they passed isn’t terribly realistic.”

Much has been accomplished at the fields project already, Sussman said, adding, “It looks beautiful up there.” But the user groups and other island volunteers, he said, need to step up and complete the work.

“Let’s get this done. But let’s get this done the way the island knows how to get it done. Let’s do it ourselves,” he said.

Cheryl Pruett, vice president of Vashon Youth Baseball and Softball, said the baseball organization is willing to help but bristled at the notion that it hasn’t done enough. Wald, a commissioner and an officer with youth baseball, has been engaged in the project every step of the way, she said. She didn’t attend the tour, she added, because she didn’t know about it.

“Obviously, the baseball board will step up and do whatever we can to help. Show us the list. What exactly needs to be done?” she asked.

But the baseball organization is not in a position to repay the grant, should it come to that, she said.

“If the grant goes into default and they want their money back, parks will have to come up with that,” she said. “Our name is on that grant as a favor to the park district.”