Vancouver city councilors got a different perspective on an expansive investment plan Monday night. Instead of a typical workshop at City Hall, councilors boarded a bus in downtown Vancouver and took their meeting on the road.
The five-hour ride-along, which included the mayor, councilors and city staff, offered a glimpse of potential development sites that could be funded with a new tax package called A Stronger Vancouver that’s currently under council consideration.
“As a retired teacher, I love field trips,” said Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle.
City Manager Eric Holmes said the tour was designed to give the council a more concrete idea of what it will be voting on.
“It’s an entirely different experience to come out here and actually physically see and experience what kind of places can actually emerge from these investments,” said Holmes.
If the council approves the current proposal, $30 million would be collected from a series of new or raised taxes to improve public safety services, build new or renovate 25 neighborhood parks and invest in other projects to combat the strain from a growing population.
Monday’s tour began in the northeast corner of Vancouver at a nearly 45-acre parcel of undeveloped land that the city hopes to transform into Fenton Community Park. The plan includes an event space, athletic fields for cricket and bocce ball, as well as an off-leash fenced dog park.
“We wanted to start out here so you could envision a blank slate,” said Julie Hannon, Vancouver’s parks and recreation director.
Hannon said the city purchased the property for $5 million last year and anticipates it will need an additional $20 million that will be likely be phased in over time.
Visitors explored the grassy lot and walked toward the property’s border along a wetlands area that connects to nearby trails.
“It’s 8.5 Esther Shorts,” Hannon told the crowd, comparing the size to downtown Vancouver’s Esther Short Park. “We can do eight times the amount of work here.”
The tour continued south, making a brief stop outside a vacant lot at the city’s Section 30 Subarea plan.
The former gravel mines were first identified for redevelopment in 2004 and have since been annexed by the city.
Clay Eiken, Vancouver’s director of community and economic development, sees the area as the largest employment opportunity for the city.
“There’s the potential for 9,000 plus jobs here,” said Eiken.
He anticipates the Stronger Vancouver initiative would help fund basic infrastructure, like building key arterial roads and a sewage system, to unlock the area for private investment and redevelopment for jobs.
The idea behind the Stronger Vancouver package began in 2017 to address cuts made to the city’s staff and spending levels at the height of the recession. Since then, the population has boomed and the local economy has recovered. But city leadership says services have lagged far behind the city’s growth.
“All of those forces combined to create a situation where actually a demand for services outpaces the growth in revenues to pay for them,” said Holmes.
After two years of meetings and public engagement, a 10-person task force, called the Executive Sponsors Council, presented a series of proposals in April to the city council with recommendations on funding sources.
According to the current plan, those revenue streams will likely come from taxpayers. The initiative recommends raising property taxes, tacking on fees and reinstating a business and occupation tax.
City council candidate and local Republican Jeanne Stewart was among the group on Monday’s bus tour and described herself as a “fiscal skeptic” when it came to increased spending.
“I saw they’re proposing the new taxes,” said Stewart. “I wanted to see what it is they’re intending to spend the money on.”
The city plans to hold three open houses for the public to learn about the funding plan at the end of August. City Manager Eric Holmes said the council could take a vote on the proposed package as early as November.