State Parks Seals Public-Private Deal

State Parks Seals Public-Private Deal

proposed 62-year lease of the Saint Edward State Park seminary building in Kenmore, by the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission (WSPRC) to Seattle-based Daniels Real Estate for use as a hotel and conference center, is the “perfect partnership” between the public and private sector. That’s according to Kenmore Business Alliance Director Carl Michaelman, who testified at a WSPRC meeting January 5 at Bastyr University. The commission voted Monday January 9 at its Tumwater headquarters to approve the lease with a few minor changes. Members hailed the move as cost-effective, and a public benefit.

Broad Support

Support has been broad. The proposal to turn a 5.5-acre property containing a dilapidated former monk’s abbey into a 80-100 room hotel and conference center has been praised by former seminary students, Kenmore residents, and the Association of King County Historical Organizations. Proponents say the lease is the most viable way to preserve an historic building that State Parks officials estimate would otherwise cost about $50 million to renovate – money they do not have.

The former seminary already costs taxpayers $100,000 annually just to heat and maintain. The lease is expected to generate an additional $406,000 per year for the state parks system via access fees paid by overnight hotel guests and day visitors. In total, the hotel is expected to yield $55 million in new parks revenue over the 62-year lease period.

Deferred Maintenance Solution

Prior to the board vote January 9, WSPRC Vice Chair Mark O. Brown said the building is the “largest piece,” about 10 percent, of the $500 million backlog of deferred maintenance properties for which the commission is responsible. “This is a great new idea for how to use an old building. The Daniels proposal is an amazing opportunity,” he said.

Brown told Lens after the meeting the move dovetails with a key commission objective to build more public-private partnerships, where the fit works. This is not “privatization” of state parks, but partnering on a “park-by-park basis”  with “recreation-oriented private enterprise,” he said. At Mount Spokane State Park and Sun Lake/Dry Falls State Park private concessionaires operate a ski run, and a resort, respectively.

More People, More Green Space

Commission chair Steve Milner joked he had been the “resident philistine” recommending razing of the seminary before Daniels “emerged as a real champion of the project,” because buildings have finite useful lives. Now, the deal will draw more people to the park, benefitting the whole system, he said. Projected population growth of a million more residents in Central Puget Sound by 2040 is the “800-pound gorilla in the room,” and recreational amenities become more crucial to quality of life, Milner added.

Pat Callahan, a former St. Edward Seminary student testified January 5, “The proposal respects the current use of the park” and “makes it available to residents throughout the state…this proposal is definitely a win-win for the locals, and as well as those outside the Seattle region, who will be able to visit the park and enjoy its expanded amenities.”

The amended lease agreement approved by the commission includes a provision to increase the size of state-controlled office and classroom spaces in the building, and fine-tunes parking spaces and fees, and environmental mitigation. It also underscores sales of state parks annual “Discover” passes at the facility.

Historic, But Became Albatross

The seminary first opened in the 1930s as a training center for Catholic priests. It closed in 1976 due to low enrollment and was acquired by State Parks in 1977. In 2007, the site was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

The parks commission voted to renovate the seminary in 2014 after exploring other options, including demolition. Funding has been elusive. Last year, the state legislature approved a law stipulating the State Department of Commerce do a feasibility study on using public or nonprofit funding, or a combination of both, to renovate the building. If that was not possible, the law authorized the parks commission to lease the seminary to a private developer, by majority vote rather than unanimous agreement ordinarily required.

Based on the Department of Commerce’s report, the commission concluded public and nonprofit funding options were not “economically viable.”

Public Waterfront Access Maintained

The proposed hotel would have an Art Deco interior design and include a spa, restaurant, lodge rooms, and conference rooms. In exchange for the lease and as part of their rent, Daniels Real Estate would give State Parks a 9.77-acre plot of land along Lake Washington known as the “McDonald Property.” It would provide an extra 450 feet of public waterfront access to Lake Washington. The plot is worth an estimated $1.5 million.

Some sections of the lodge would be open to non-hotel guests on the first floor, making the seminary accessible to the public for the first time. The lease to Daniels Real Estate would also include the seminary pool and gymnasium, but the developer has no immediate plans for those buildings.

At the January 5 meeting, State Rep. Jessyn Farrell (D-46) voiced concern about insufficient public use of the 5.5-acre property, specifically a 1,000-square foot section allotted for an educational center, which she said is “not enough.” This led to changes in the final lease agreement. The space will now be up to two times larger.

Farrell also cited the different state parking fees for hotel guests and day visitors. The final lease provides for a closer look at day-visitor parking fees.

One person who testified during the January 5 meeting complained that turning the seminary into a private hotel would be “entirely incompatible with the public enjoyment and preservation of this magnificent wooded park.”

However, Kirkland City Councilmember Toby Nixon, a former 45th District State Representative, told Lens that critics of the hotel fail to offer a plausible alternative funding model. He added that unless they can “convince the legislature to come up with $50 million…which is never going to happen…why not enter into a public-private partnership that’s going to bring more business to the area, create jobs, and enable the park to be used by more people?”

Additional reporting by Matt Rosenberg

TJ Martinell is a native Washingtonian and award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Bellevue, he’s been involved in the news industry since working at his high school newspaper.

His investigative reporting for various community newspapers in the Puget Sound region has been recognized by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society for Professional Journalists.

A graduate of Eastern Washington University, he has a B.A. in journalism and was the news editor of EWU’s student university newspaper.

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