If there was a silver lining in Central Oregon’s real estate bust, the Bend Park and Recreation District was wrapped in it.
While developers hemorrhaged red ink and defaulted on real estate deals, the park district was quietly leveraging the war chest it amassed in the boom years to scoop up high-value properties at near rock-bottom prices. Among other acquisitions, it cinched up the Miller Landing site across from McKay Park and a once seemingly untouchable piece of land at Gopher Gulch that had been slated for a NorthWest Crossing style development. Shortly thereafter, it closed a deal for the much sought after Mt. Bachelor Park and Ride lot at Simpson.
In many ways it’s been a banner half decade, but now the district wants to double down on those investments with a $29 million bond that would set the stage for the next half of decade of park development. Among other things, it would allow the district to complete key river trail segments, finish development of existing parks, including the Bend Pine Nursery, expand neighborhood parks in underserved areas, create safe passage at the Colorado dam and set the stage for a whitewater play park and fund a seasonal community ice skating rink.
There’s just one catch. This time they need taxpayer's help to do it.
Despite difficult economic times (Deschutes County’s unemployment rate for August was roughly 11.5 percent), district leaders said that now is the time to act. Competitive construction costs, low bond rates and low land prices are three of the main reasons to move forward with Bond Measure No. 9-86.
But beyond these general economic factors, the district currently has partnerships with community organizations such as the Bend Paddle Alliance, which will fundraise to complete projects such as a whitewater park near the Colorado Bridge and new soccer fields at Pine Nursery Park. The district also has agreements with landowners who are willing to sell their parcels right now at a reasonable price to the district.
“We have willing sellers and bond rates are almost at an all-time low,” said Don Horton, executive director of Bend Park and Recreation District.
He said district leaders fear that if they wait construction prices will rise, bond rates will rise, land prices will rise and the agreements they currently have with community groups and land owners may falter.
In addition to all that, the district believes the public is behind these projects now. Parks staff cited a number of formal and informal polls they’ve conducted over recent years, including one just last February, that showed 56 percent of voters favored the proposed bond measure. And that was when the project was projected to cost $40 million rather than $29 million, said Horton.
“This isn’t something the board came up with in the last six months. We’ve been taking input for six to eight years,” said Scott Wallace, a member of the district’s board of directors.
Parks and rec staff said that though it is a well-funded organization, the projects to be completed by the bond measure are simply beyond the district’s regular operating budget.
“We don’t have the money to pay for it (all),” Horton said.
The scope of the bond measure is broad, but here are the big-ticket line items:
• Colorado Dam Safe Passage, which sets the stage for development of a whitewater park by private donors
• Deschutes River Trail connectors and associated parks
• Pine Nursery Park improvements including more ball fields and parking areas
• The purchase of small plots of land throughout southeast Bend, where parks will be developed
• A recreation site on Simpson Avenue including an ice rink and improvements to streets in the area
Horton said it would take the parks district nearly 15 years to save the $29 million needed for these projects. In addition, there are a number of regulations surrounding how Parks uses some of the fees that they already collect, such as System Development Charges (SDCs), fees collected from new development. According to Horton, monies collected from SDCs cannot be used for land acquisition, which is a major component of the Park’s project.
Horton also said voters should trust their money won’t be used for anything excpet the proposed projects on the ballot measure. First off, annual bond audits will be conducted, which should ensure that the allocated money is being used as outlined in the project list.
“We would not serve ourselves or the community very well if we did any baiting or switching,” Wallace added.
District staff said they plan to keep voters up to date with progress reports sent out in newsletters and via social media, but they are confident the projects will be completed with this bond.
“We are convinced that we’ll have enough money to do the whole slate,” said Horton.