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Poulsbo college campus victim of spending freeze

POULSBO — One year ago this month, former Olympic College President Karl Jonietz was calling the fine weather that graced the proposed site of a new branch campus near Poulsbo “auspicious.” He and members of the Suquamish Tribe visited the 20-acre site at the city’s northwestern edge, saying special prayers and making blessings that the much anticipated campus would come to fruition.

The proposed college campus had already survived years of public hearings, months of litigation and countless days of anxiety over whether its $13 million state-funded nest egg would give birth to a beautiful bird or never hatch.

In 2001, the project weathered storm after storm as problems ranging from bidding delays, sewer issues and fire protection to huge disagreements with developer First Western swept the idea through uncharted financial seas.

Now the campus could be heading for the rocks — for good.

But it wasn’t the ongoing problems at the 216-acre Olhava property that may may have sealed the branch campus’ fate. And although First Western and college officials haven’t made any substantial progress at the site in the past year, the nation’s lagging economy could prove to be the stone in the sack that sinks the highly anticipated project.

Earlier this week, the Office of Financial Management declared a spending freeze on the $13 million it had set aside for the proposal and various others across Washington in an attempt to tighten its belt. For a project teetering on the brink of non-existence it could be the death blow.

Mike Connolly, vice president of administration at Olympic College, said he wasn’t exactly sure what the news meant for the branch campus and could only speculate at the possible impact.

“That’s all the information we have,” he said, when asked about the OFM decision. “Right now were on hold anyway, so from that point of view it doesn’t change anything.”

If the project goes forward and the money isn’t there though, Connolly said he didn’t know what might occur.

The vice president received word of the funding delay in a “terse e-mail” from the Office of Financial Management earlier this week. Connolly confirmed that he had heard rumors to this effect last week as well.

“(The OFM) told me that the state has gone into a bit of a more conservative situation,” he remarked.

While the OFM declaration is definitely a blow to supporters of the campus it comes on the heels of one of the most tenuous years to date for the long-standing idea. A year that saw constant struggle between college officials and developers, the unexpected resignation of Jonietz as OC president, and finally stagnation in terms of any progress at Olhava.

“As of today, they haven’t submitted any permits or engineering drawings,” city engineer John Stephenson said Thursday. Sewer, water, roads and stormwater plans have yet to be submitted to Poulsbo.

First Western has been the rust in the hinge ever since the project got “under way” last year. Although the land has been cleared of the large trees that once stood at the vast site, stumps, dirt and burnt out piles of ash are the only signs that anything was ever planned at Olhava.

“About all I know is that (councilman) Ed Stern is urging Mark Zenger (of First Western) to come over to a meeting on Oct. 17 for a status report, which I think is going to amount to why they’re behind on everything,” Stephenson explained, noting that on-site infrastructure work was supposed to start May 1 of this year with roads, utilities and water service coming to a conclusion by Oct. 1.

“When it gets postponed, two things happen: inflation continues to zip away and the funding can be reallocated by the state,” he added. “Those two things can hurt or end such a project.”

Nonetheless, Olympic College was the initial driving force which eventually swayed city council to agree to the development of the 216-acre Olhava property.

“There’s no question that that was the carrot or the incentive for the whole project,” Stephenson remarked. “If that goes away... I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

This continued uncertainty on the long-awaited project is something city councilman Ed Stern said he found especially aggravating.

“I guess my reaction would be that this is frustration in the sense that this was avoidable,” explained Stern, who has become the branch campus’ most vocal supporter at city hall over the past year. “If we had turned just a shovelful of dirt there, things may have been different.”

As he did during a council session several months ago, Stern blamed inaction on the part of First Western for the lack of progress at Olhava.

“This is exactly what we were afraid of and there was very precious little we could do except hope that First Western would get up to the plate and swing the ball,” he added.

The developer has yet to knock the dirt off its cleats.

“We’ll try to sort out what we can,” he said of the Oct. 17 meeting. “Hopefully something can be salvaged.”

Sen. Betti Sheldon shared this optimistic outlook but remained realistic about the status of the $13 million in state funding.

“The longer it stays in the capital budget the more in jeopardy it gets,” Sheldon explained. “We’re kind of sitting on that money like a hen on an egg.”

But, the senator agreed, First Western’s lack of progress was not helping matters at all.

“It looks like right now we won’t get the funding at this point in time,” she said, noting the OFM’s statement that capital projects that have not been bonded will not get funding until the economy takes a swing for the better. “I don’t think we’ll lose our place in line and maybe we can get First Western off the dime and then figure out what we can do.”

Mark Zenger of First Western did not return numerous phone calls from the Herald. (Interim OC President Dr. Diana Van der Ploeg (who replaced Jonietz this summer) was out of town and unavailable for comment.

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