Urban renewal and outside influence

My Turn

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A funny thing happened to Silver Valley residents on their way to a decision on whether or not they want an Urban Renewal Agency (URA) in their county. They've heard from their neighbors to the west, including two elected officials angry over Coeur d'Alene's agency and its investment in McEuen Field.

The newest change to urban renewal law requires approval from local residents before their elected officials can form a URA. Previously, in over four dozen cities and at least one county, those officials needed only proof of deterioration within their boundaries to authorize the URA and appoint its members. As a result of the law change, Shoshone County Commissioners have scheduled a vote on the issue for this Tuesday. What they could never have imagined was the interference of residents outside the Valley, but that is exactly what has happened.

Their reason for forming the URA has had nothing to do with a park but instead the creation of jobs, and lots of them. By forming a URA they can then focus on an area of obvious deterioration in the Big Creek area between Kellogg and Wallace. Home to two mines and a silver refinery, the road and utilities within it are substandard for the conveyance of ore from the mines. A recent study found that up to $5 million is needed to fix the deterioration for the two miles from I-90 to the Sunshine Mine. The Sunshine, mostly idled since 1990, has new owners proposing a $250 million stock offering to replace all of the surface buildings and invest in reopening the mine. The resulting 300 jobs would be a big boost to the county, one of only three in the state with double-digit unemployment. The tax increment from the project would also go a long way to funding the road improvements.

It all began in April at a meeting of the county's Republican Central Committee when Rep. Kathy Sims (R-Coeur d'Alene) showed up to protest the decision by the Commissioners to form the URA. The Central Committee had been excited by the recent election of Jim Best and Leslee Stanley, who joined Larry Yergler to form the first all-Republican Commission in the county. As a vocal opponent of urban renewal, Rep. Sims really got things riled up within the Central Committee. That has left the Commissioners with an uphill battle to get the required votes to form their URA.

Things got even more interesting at a public hearing held by the Commissioners in Kellogg when Coeur d'Alene City Councilman Dan Gookin joined the fray. Also an outspoken opponent of LCDC and McEuen, Councilman Gookin stated his opinion on the matter in no uncertain terms. While the Commissioners were seeking input from their constituents they were not expecting an onslaught from outside, but that's what they got, and they got it good. One resident grumbled that it wasn't bad enough that the rich city to the west stole the county's best deputies for higher wages but now they would protest the creation of hundreds of high paying jobs in the Valley.

With the election on the matter on Tuesday, the Commissioners remain hopeful that the voters who invested their support in them will again trust their decision to form the badly-needed URA.

The economic resurgence of the Silver Valley may very well hang in the balance.

John Austin is a former finance director in Kootenai County and the city of Coeur d'Alene and can be reached at john@pacni.org.

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