When Coeur d’Alene City Council members convene today at 6 p.m., they will be asked to decide on a proposal that will alter the economic, the political and — quite possibly — the literal landscape of the area surrounding Kootenai Health.
If approved, homes, businesses and public facilities near the community hospital will likely see changes over the next two decades.
Here are some nuts and bolts about the potential future of the Health Corridor proposal.
Q: What is the Health Corridor district?
The Health Corridor district is a proposed urban renewal area that focuses on developing 263 acres surrounding Kootenai Health, stretching from Interstate 90 on the north to Davidson Avenue on the south, and from the western slopes of Northwest Boulevard east to Government Way, with Ironwood Way and U.S. 95 criss-crossing through the district’s heart.
The proposed urban renewal plan — spearheaded by ignite cda, Coeur d’Alene’s urban renewal agency — was created to combat deteriorating buildings and redevelop vacant and underutilized land. The plan lists obsolete buildings, inadequate transportation options, dated infrastructure, antiquated zoning designations and a lack of public space among justifications to move forward.
One main concern is the swelling problem of traffic. As the area has grown, so has the population’s impact on Kootenai Health’s traffic demands. A series of possible solutions — including pedestrian-friendly campuses, a realignment of Ironwood and even a future I-90 overpass that connects Appleway to Kootenai Health — have been suggested.
The Health Corridor proposes four phases of development that would stretch through the next 20 years. The goal, planners have said, would be to encourage economic development, attract high-paying medical jobs and improve the area’s infrastructure to boost growth.
“Kootenai Health is a mature, long-term community asset that’s been in place for 40-plus years,” said ignite cda executive director Tony Berns. "It’s one of the key economic drivers for the community. It’s one of the community’s largest employers ... We have a fantastic community partner in place, and we want to help encourage these public-private partnerships.”
“As a district hospital, Kootenai Health exists to meet the health care needs of our community,” said Kootenai Health communications director Kim Anderson. "For many years now, Kootenai Health has been recruiting physicians and other staff members to provide care in our community. These are good jobs that not only help people who live here receive the care they need close to home, they also help contribute to our local economy.”
Q: How long has this been in the works?
The idea was first verbalized four years ago and formally studied in 2017. The Panhandle Area Council then reviewed the idea in 2018. ignite cda’s involvement began this year. In May, with the help of consulting groups, the agency began a series of public workshops to establish the vision and design of the Health Corridor.
A two-month economic feasibility analysis, a market analysis and a series of design workshops went into what city officials and ignite board members described as an exhaustive planning effort.
“They’ve studied all kinds of ways to handle it,” Berns said. “Private development, hospital-only development, doing nothing. The recommendation was that [urban renewal] is absolutely the best way to go about this.”
City Council member Dan Gookin, who questioned Berns on the particulars of the plan in a lengthy Q&A at the Nov. 19 council meeting, disagrees.
“When you look at ignite’s role in this,” Gookin told The Press, “you have to ask the question: Is urban renewal the best way to fund this? This isn’t the only funding mechanism. So is it the best? And is this the best use of urban renewal?”
Gookin, a long-standing opponent of urban renewal, said the deployment of urban renewal was historically used on properties unable to independently create tax revenue.
Q: When Berns said "public-private partnerships," what does that mean? Does that mean Kootenai Health would own all of those 263 acres?
No. Aside from the publicly owned main hospital campus, private businesses satsifying different industries — from medical services to health clubs to assisted living facilities to banks to grocery stores — all operate in that area, and almost all are privately owned. Furthermore, people own and live in single-family homes along the southern end of the district, and affordable housing units can be found throughout the area. While Kootenai Health owns property within that area, it is by no means the sole property owner.
Instead, it means homes, businesses and facilities would have to abide by certain practices in keeping with the proposed district’s attempts to encourage development. For example, if developers decided to build a modern park — in keeping with the Health Corridor’s wishes to encourage more public space — neighbors could be required to invest in the upkeep of their own buildings to maintain a beautified nearby public space. It also means the proposed district would prioritize both the acquisition of real property for improvements and the demolition or removal of deteriorating properties, all through a strategic vision Berns said is goal-driven but not written in stone.
“That vision is not exactly how this is going to turn out,” Berns conceded. "The real world will dictate changes that will come. We can say what direction we want this area to go, but the specific projects will be guided in one way or the other by circumstances.”
Q: Hang on. If these properties are privately owned, how does the proposed district have the right to demolish anything not belonging to them?
The agency would have a number of tools at its disposal. First — and, by the numbers, most prominently — it would simply make a competitive offer and buy the land. This has been the most effective and agreeable tactic ignite cda has historically used. The agency would make an offer, the owner would consider the offer and the two sides would likely negotiate until they came to an agreement.
“That’s been the most effective,” Berns said. “We make the offer and hopefully come to an agreement.”
If the agency receives federal funds for real estate acquisition and relocation, it is required to help displaced families and businesses. For example, if demolishing an apartment complex owned by either Kootenai Health or Kootenai-friendly developers ends up forcing a family to move, the agency is required to help the displaced family.
In the few times ignite cda has been unable to acquire needed properties, Berns said, the board simply decided to change direction. According to him, the last weapon in the arsenal — one never before used by ignite cda — would be eminent domain, a last-case scenario to compel unwilling property owners to sell for the interest of the Health Corridor’s concerns.
“What I can say is the board has never, ever considered that as an option,” he said. “They’ve never, ever talked about it. That said, it does exist, but it’s something they’ve never used.”
Q: “I’ve heard a lot of talk about eminent domain. I’m a homeowner, and the idea of someone taking my property without my blessing is terrifying. Why shouldn't I be scared?”
You’re not alone.
“ignite cda aka CDA 2030 aka LCDC with Tony Berns as the executive director will not just profit immensely from the taxpayer but will also be able to enforce eminent domain!” wrote Heike Jahnert in a Nov. 29 Coeur d’Alene Press letter to the editor. “Let that sink in my fellow citizens/ Tony Berns, who is not an elected city official, has the power to get you off your property. He doesn’t have to fear any repercussion from the voters. Nobody can touch him or hold him accountable because he is hired by the city and not voted in by the citizens of Coeur d’Alene.”
“If a landowner doesn’t want to sell, the only answer the agency has is eminent domain," Gookin said. "They’d have to use it. They already have laid their cards out on the table with this map showing what they’re going to do. If they’re going to redesign a street or run a road through a property, they’d have to use it.”
Title seven, chapter seven of Idaho law limits eminent domain to properties with compromised structural integrity, a property’s threat to human life or health, properties that promote criminal delinquency or other dangers to public welfare. Some courts, however, have given urban renewal agencies certain leeway when administering the legal move.
That said, Berns emphasized that ignite cda has no plans to break out the rarely used, break-only-in-case-of-emergency measure.
“It’s a tool the agency has been empowered to have. It’s a tool ignite has never considered using, but it does exist. The board would rather change plans than use it. That’s been the board’s history, and their character.”
Q: Who’s paying for all of this?
A few different sources, including Kootenai Health, private developers, the state and federal governments and, to a certain degree, you.
The Health Corridor economic feasibility study predicts developers will contribute $16.1 million through the next 20 years, including 25 percent of project costs. Coeur d’Alene would contribute $3.4 million in those same 20 years, a quarter of which would be dedicated to targeted projects. Federal and state departments of transportation would contribute $19 million in the next two decades, all devoted to highway-related projects. Kootenai Health, which would not pay property taxes, would contribute $7.3 million in a PILOT (payments in lieu of taxing).
The additional $46.2 million would come from tax increment — property taxes paid within the district. The plan also allows for the district to borrow money, something that lies at the heart of Gookin’s concerns with the Health Corridor.
“The most crucial issue to me, though, is in regards to Council and oversight,” he said. “If this district goes into debt, the agreement cannot be modified. The Atlas District doesn’t have this clause. If we’re asking permission from a bank before we can make any changes or install a street sign, are we really making decisions for the people? The obvious answer to me is, ‘No.’”
Jon Ingalls, who sits on Coeur d'Alene’s planning commission, championed the Health Corridor as the commission voted to send it to the City Council.
“I think we’re darn fortunate — every one of us that live here — to have quality health care and the kind of services that are available,” Ingalls said. “It wasn’t that long ago we didn’t have a heart services here; you had to go to Spokane. You didn’t have cancer services; you had to go to Spokane. You didn’t have a [neo-natal intensive care unit]; you had to go to Spokane ...
“If this isn’t supported by the [comprehensive] plan, I don’t know what is.”
City Council members are scheduled to vote during their 6 p.m. meeting in the Coeur d’Alene Public Library Community Room.