City councilors say they are running out of time to ink development agreements with prospective businesses that are currently interested in relocating to Juniper Ridge. So far about a half dozen businesses, including some local and some out of state employers, have expressed serious interest in joining tire magnate Les Schwab, which is in the process of relocating its corporate headquarters from Prineville to Bend and has nearly completed its new campus at Juniper Ridge near the intersection of 18th Street and Cooley Road.
But the city risks losing some of these businesses and critical momentum for a project that has been beset by problems, including the $2.5 million public divorce from its primary partners Ray Kuratek and Jeff Holtzman, if it doesn't move forward soon, say councilors.
As a result the city is now publicly raising the possibility that it may move forward against the wishes of the OTC and Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT), a move that would put them on a collision course with the powerful state agency.
City councilors say privately that if the city doesn't hammer out some sort of an agreement with ODOT that allows them to proceed with at least limited short term development at Juniper Ridge in the next two months that the city may plow ahead on its own, allowing the businesses to submit land use applications for development.
If the OTC/ODOT challenges the city's approval of those projects, the city would fight it out with ODOT at the Land Use Board of Appeals.
City councilor Bill Friedman said the city would prefer to work cooperatively with the state department of transportation, but added that there is a legitimate question as to whether the agency has de facto veto power over the city when it comes to a local land use decision.
"It is always with regret that you have a difference of opinion with another governmental agency. I guess my experience is if we all keep this a professional disagreement, that all we are doing is getting answers to things as to who has the authority to do what, it's all just part of the mix," he said.
The potential standoff with OTC and, by extension, ODOT has been several years in the making. But it has heated up recently with the transportation commission telling the city that it won't allow businesses to break ground at Juniper Ridge until a solution has been found for the growing congestion on Hwy 97 on Bend's north end where traffic coming in and out of the city piles up during rush hour.
Adding to the challenge is the agency's statewide budget crunch. Earlier this summer ODOT announced it was paring more than $70 million in new road projects, including $4.5 million in funding for a crucial interchange at the intersection of Cooley Road and Highway 97. While the agency plods forward with plans for a long-term redesign of Hwy 97 on Bend's north end, it isn't going to have a recommendation on that project until 2010, said Peter Murphy, ODOT's Region 4 spokesman.
In the meantime the city is moving forward on a plan to move some of the traffic onto a revamped local street grid on Bend's north end, where the state says too many "local" trips are using the state highways. The city has also pledged $50 million toward a long and/or short term fix to the congestion problem, essentially offering the state a pool of cash in exchange for its blessing to move forward on Juniper Ridge. The city had hoped to sell OTC commissioners on these ideas at a recent meeting in Redmond where Bend City Manager Eric King had a chance to make the city's case directly to the commission.
However, the city got a less than overwhelmingly positive reception from the commission when it brought these ideas forward.
Bend Chamber President Tim Casey called OTC's response to Bend's proposal, "lukewarm, at best."
"I sat through the entire day's proceedings and they seemed like they were very cordial with most folks who were showing up and then it seemed like, I don't know, maybe it's just my own impression, but it seemed like things just sort of cooled off once Bend was brought in," he said.
Friedman was also there and offered a somewhat more optimistic view of the reception.
"You always hope for them to jump up at the table and embrace this and say this is the best plan we've ever seen, that's not generally what happens," Friedman said.
However, he added that the city got a polite reception that wasn't necessarily discouraging.
And while the commission has agreed to take a look at the city's interim proposal, it has been firm in its position that the city needs to do more to mitigate impacts to the state highway system.
Commission chair Gail Achterman told the city at the August meeting that it needs to provide more information to the state about its long-term plans and to identify a solid source of funding for its share of the project. Right now the city is proposing to assess new businesses in Juniper Ridge a transportation fee that is based on the number of employees, or roughly $9,000 per "car trip."
However, Achterman said that alone isn't a sufficient plan to address the growing transportation issues on the north end.
The Bulletin quoted Achterman as saying at the meeting, "If it's just speculatively, 'Oh we think we're going to have that money in 10 years,' I don't think that's good enough for the citizens of this region."
ODOT Spokesman Patrick Cooney said the situation in Bend isn't unique. Communities tend to cluster their economic development lands around state highways and major intersections, and the more they grow the worse the transportation issues become. When the system finally breaks, the cities come to the state looking for help and money. And while the commission is mindful of Bend's economic development, it has a duty to protect the state highway system, said Cooney.
"They're the only body that I know of that does that - that looks at the state system and tries to find a balance and compromise," Cooney said.
But without a little more compromise from the state, city officials say they stand to face a relatively significant setback in their efforts to jumpstart Juniper Ridge.
At present there are three local firms that are interested in relocating to Juniper Ridge and four more from out of the area, said Jerry Mitchell, the city's development manager for Juniper Ridge. At this point he said these firms need an answer as to whether Juniper Ridge is a viable option.
"I would say all of them have a real time pressure...but were just kind of waiting for the dust to clear, but they now need to make decisions and move forward," Mitchell said. "They typically have a lease that's going to expire and they really need to expand and can't in their existing space."
Given the situation, the city needs to pursue another track besides intergovernmental negotiations if it wants to hold onto the jobs it has and create new opportunities for employers, said Mayor Bruce Abernethy.
That could mean that it's time to ask the bureaucrats to step aside and call in the lawyers who will fight it out at the state Land Use Board of Appeals and, possibly, in the courts. Asked whether he thought it made sense for the city to assume an adversarial role with ODOT given the long-term partnerships required to meet the city's transportation needs, Abernethy said he was comfortable with the approach, given the good faith effort that city has put forward to this point to partner with ODOT.
"I think the city has really been very accommodating, We have a very strong track record of being accommodating," he said.
ODOT's Cooney said he couldn't think of a case where a city has pulled ODOT into court to solve a dispute over the state highway system.
And while both parties say they are optimistic they can find a collaborative approach to the Juniper Ridge issue, it appears the clock is now ticking.