WALLA WALLA -- A plan to bring many of Walla Walla County's social service providers under one roof took a major step forward Monday.
County officials approved a $2.1 million loan from the county's investment pool to buy the building now housing the county's Human Services Department at 1520 Kelly Place, off Dalles Military Road. The loan to the Human Services Department will be paid back over 10 years by the department and other agencies expected to move into the building.
Those agencies will include Blue Mountain Action Council, Helpline, Blue Mountain Heart to Heart and Friends of Children of Walla Walla, said Daryl Daugs, Human Services Department director.
The loan was approved by county commissioners and the county's Finance Committee, which consists of county Treasurer Gordon Heimbigner, Auditor Karen Martin and commission Chairman Gregg Loney. Heimbigner said the interest rate for the first two years will be the current Treasury Bill interest rate plus one-half percent. That rate will then be reviewed every two years.
Although Daugs and Loney said creation of the joint service agency has been a long-sought goal, officials with the other agencies said questions still remain about the project, including approval by those agencies' boards. A new bus line to allow clients to reach the Kelly Place building is also dependent on a grant not scheduled to be decided for several months.
While Helpline has been in the discussion all along, the Kelly Place location is fresh on the table, noted Dan Willms, the agency's executive director. Without a bus route to the address, Helpline's clients will not be served by a move there, he added. "It bothers us that it is not centralized and not closer to our clients."
Being downtown has worked well for the agency, but the present Helpline building on Colville Street has some drawbacks, Willms said. "We like our location a lot, but our lease is tenuous. We are basically on a month-to-month lease and that is the only reason we would move."
Steve Moss, head of Blue Mountian Action Council, said he is appreciative of the county's lead in creating a solution to putting multiple organizations in one place. "We've been working on it for years."
Locating those kinds of services away from the city's core is not ideal, but finding the perfect location "has proven to be terribly expensive or just not available," he said.
BMAC would benefit in going from the 4,500 square feet it occupies on Catherine Street to about 8,000 square feet, and the Kelly Place building offers off-street parking, meeting and class rooms, as well as some shared costs of equipment and telephone systems, Moss said. Most of the community service organizations planned for the 24,000-square-foot location already do a lot of referring to one another, he pointed out.
BMAC's board will have to vote on accepting space in the new location, but the intention is to go forward. However, getting a bus route in place is crucial, he noted. "Everyone recognizes the need for Valley Transit to serve that client group."
A previous plan to situate the agency at the Elks Lodge building in downtown Walla Walla was halted in the spring when the county's request for a $1 million Community Development Block Grant from the state was denied.
Daugs said after that the project partners began meeting regularly to look at all the options, which including trying to re-start purchase of the Elks Lodge, construction of a new building, looking "at virtually all the commercial building space in the county" and finally at the Kelly Place building.
Although the building's assessed value is $3.1 million, the owner was willing to sell for about $2.8 million if the deal could be completed before the end of this year, Daugs said. The additional funds needed on top of the loan amount will come from the Human Services Department reserve fund with possible additional funds from grants to be applied for.
Daugs said that in these economic times "it can seem odd to make a capital purchase, but it's actually an economic benefit. We aren't leasing anymore and we're putting all these services into one location."
The associated agencies will also be able to move into the building without major renovations, which the Elks Lodge building would have required, Daugs said. However, some renovations will be done if grant money can be obtained.
Sheila Hagar can be reached at email@example.com or 526-8322. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/fromthestorageroom. Andy Porter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8318. Check out his blog at blogs.ublabs.org/randomthoughts.