Washington Park Out, Good Samaritan In

By Patrick Fancher

school and playgroundThe Benton Center has needed to offer more classroom options, as well as available parking spaces, to its students and community members for years now. Dale Stowell, executive director of the Institutional Advancement/Foundation for Linn-Benton Community College, pointed out the campus’s shortcomings.

“With our current parking we can’t even fully use the facility we have, so we’re only able to offer the same level [as currently offered] of community education and advancement courses,” Stowell said. “Corvallis and Benton County student population is 40% of our service district, which means a lot of people have to drive to our Linn County location to get their education. [Expansion] allows more people to get the classes they need.”

To many in our community, this isn’t new. Most students we spoke to cited a desire to do away with high gas bills and scheduling problems that prevented them not only from working, but from signing up for all the classes they need. This situation has been especially hard on those without stable transportation or in low-income situations.

Why Can’t the Benton Center Move?
LBCC officials set out some time ago to expand the college’s presence in Corvallis and began to search for alternative sites in the area. According to Stowell, the college considered as many as seven different locations for expansion, including Hewlett-Packard, CH2M Hill, and the old Albertson’s building on Circle Boulevard.

“We set up a number of criteria and did ratings on all of the various sites and for many reasons people weren’t going to sell the sites,” Stowell said. He added that if LBCC had two campuses in Corvallis it would increase operational costs and not address the need for parking at the current location.

Washington Park Proposal Rebuff
In June, officials decided it would be more cost-effective to add 8 to 10 classrooms and as many as 300 parking spaces at the Benton Center instead. Any expansion would be paid for with a $34 million bond measure the board of education would place on November’s ballot, to cover $8 million in costs for the Benton Center project and three additional projects, Stowell said.

However, there was one major caveat to their plan: the school needed to buy a portion of the underutilized grassy area and softball field known as Washington Park from the city to build on. It was the same park the college showed interest in during 2012 as well. Stowell noted that LBCC President Greg Hamann said early on, if they’re unable to acquire the space to build outward, they will build upward. Meaning the Benton Center will expand its campus no matter what.

The Corvallis City Council asked the Parks, Natural Areas and Recreation Board (PNARB) if they’d recommend the best ways to spend the money if it sold Washington Park, PNARB chair Betty Griffiths said. But the board didn’t do that. They chose to vote on whether the city should sell the park to LBCC, which resulted in a unanimous “no” decision. “We did not advise them on how to spend the money, as we felt that would contradict the motion that we had to not sell the park,” Griffiths said.

Board members expressed concern that not only would expansion remove open green space and a valuable flood plain, but also set a bad precedent in which more Corvallis parks could be sold in the future. Many residents agreed with the PNARB objections and about 50 people showed up at a meeting hosted at the Benton Center last week to speak out against the proposal. Would the small public outcry be enough to persuade LBCC not to buy?

LBCC Hears It, Gets It, Moves on
Last Thursday, Hamann wrote a letter to Corvallis Mayor Julie Manning and the city council informing them the college was no longer interested in buying the portion of the park for expansion, citing how it would conflict with the wants of some residents. The college would now focus on other options, including the possibility of collaborating with Good Samaritan Health Services on developing structured parking.

After several weeks of pursuing Washington Park was anyone surprised LBCC abandoned its proposal?

“It’s clear to us that many Corvallis citizens strongly value public open space and don’t want the park to be smaller, so we felt it was time to move on and develop other ideas,” Stowell said.

“I thought the comments shared by President Hamann in his letter were well-stated,” Manning said. “College leaders heard the comments and concerns voiced by community members, and LBCC changed course as a result.”

Ward 1 city council member Penny York saw this coming.

“I expected that it wasn’t going to pass from council, so I think it was a good thing for the college to decide,” York said. She made it clear that while residents were opposed to Washington Park being involved in the expansion, they were supportive of the Benton Center making additions with other alternatives.

“It’s important to me that the college go ahead and expand at the Benton Center site and solve the neighborhood parking problem. The bond measure in November is the opportunity to do that.” York said.

Path Forward & Possible Samaritan Health Partnership
As aforementioned, even as LBCC was proposing the possible purchase of Washington Park, it had already committed that it would build upward instead of outward if the community preferred keeping the park. Of course, this may mean less added capacity or a bit more cost, or a combination of the two.

Now insert Good Samaritan into the expansion discussion. Its Avery Square location is within very close proximity of the Benton Center, and has several hundred employees who work and most importantly park there.

Stowell said very little about other options the college is considering or about a possible collaboration with Good Samaritan on expansion.

“We’re in the concept phase, so it’s hard for me say exactly what [expansion] might look like. We don’t have any firm details at this point,” Stowell said.

Dr. Larry Mullins, president and CEO of Samaritan Health Services, said early conversations with Linn-Benton leadership had both sides agreeing to really study the situation in terms of parking, and see if there’s a feasible approach to take.

“If we can come together to figure out a way to address parking issues that benefit the college, that benefit Samaritan and the neighborhood, especially if we can do so in recognition of the fact that there’s a real desire to maintain parks in the areas around that community, we’re willing to go to the drawing board to see what can be done.” Mullins said.

We know LBCC will use part of the $34 million from the bond measure, if it’s passed by voters, to expand. So would Samaritan contribute to the price tag if a structure were to go up between the two locations?

“If we’re participating, I’m sure we would be looking at accountability for our own cost of the project,” Mullins said. He also mentioned the collaboration is something they will try to develop over the next several months.