North county sites seek Clark College's orbit

Ridgefield, Battle Ground parcels eyed as possible satellite campus for Vancouver-based college

By Aaron Corvin and Cami Joner

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Tri-Mountain Golf Course has long been a potential target for higher development with its Cascade mountain views and proximity to Interstate 5 near La Center and Ridgefield.

But the county-owned course also has liabilities, such as the natural bodies of water that are an instant turnoff to site developers, even if they're a welcome challenge for duffers.

This may explain why Clark College only briefly considered then rejected the golf course in its search for a north Clark County satellite campus site. Golfers can breathe easier, knowing Tri-Mountain is out of the running. But owners of five other Ridgefield tracts and one Battle Ground site would love the college to choose their property. That market is filled with property owners who paid high prices during the real estate boom and family landowners who might be waiting a long time for prospective buyers, if they don't sell to the college.

The college hasn't said publicly when it expects to select a site. But construction is likely years away, according to records obtained by The Columbian this month.

Under the heading "Criteria for North County Property Proposal," a college document outlines the project's tentative time line. It identifies 2015-2019 as the five-year pre-design and design period for the campus. The document lists 2019 as the start date for construction of the 70,000-square-foot building on a 70-acre site the college is looking for.

State legislation has already authorized a pot of $38.48 million for the project's design and construction. No state money has been issued for property acquisition. Land inside Ridgefield's urban growth boundary near its I-5 junction sells for between $87,000 and $348,500 per acre, depending on zoning, said Eric Fuller, a broker and owner of Eric Fuller & Associates Inc. commercial real estate firm.

According to Bob Williamson, the college's vice president of administrative services, Clark College is examining five potential locations and has identified a preferred site. It has made no final decision and the college hasn't announced which property it prefers.

"The five sites we're looking at most intently are all located within the greater Ridgefield area," Williamson said. He emphasized the selection process is fluid and flexible and said the college hasn't ruled out any potential location. That includes a Battle Ground site, which is still being considered, he said.

Land owned by PeaceHealth, which involves developing a health sciences-focused campus in Ridgefield, also remains in play.

Although Clark County officials never got the chance to present the Tri-Mountain site as an option, even that tract isn't entirely out of the running, Williamson said.

"We may circle back to Tri-Mountain," depending on how the college's site search goes, he said.

Tri-Mountain's property zoning would need to be changed to accommodate a college campus, Williamson said. The site is not immediately adjacent to Interstate 5, creating challenges for accessibility and visibility, he added.

Despite the college's stated potential interest, a county leader who oversees the golf course figured the site was out of the running when college officials canceled his meeting to pitch the tract.

"We did not give our presentation because Clark College said there was no need," said Mark McCauley, Clark County's general services director.

Golf course not profitable

The county has owned the 132-acre public golf course on the southwest corner of Northeast 299th Street and 11th Avenue since 1997, when it purchased the site from the Port of Ridgefield, which was in default. The county recently reduced its contract payment to the golf course operator, Virginia-based Billy Casper Golf, as the course did not turn a profit in 2010 or 2011.

Selling the site to Clark College would have helped the county get rid of a money loser with bond payments of roughly $525,000 a year.

In 2005, the county refinanced the bonds at a lower interest rate. But it would have to pay roughly $5.8 million to retire the debt, McCauley said. The county's debt service payments on the course are paid using the real estate taxes collected whenever a home is sold.

"We owe a considerable amount of money on the course," McCauley said. "So, if Clark College were to offer us a suitable price that would allow us to diffuse the debt, we certainly would want the option to entertain the offer."

His statement illustrates Clark College's upper hand in the search for property in the area, under the influence of a profound buyers' market, according to local real estate experts. College officials seem keenly aware of their favorable situation.

"If none of these sites work out, the college would begin (to) re-explore other opportunities," Williamson said.

Nevertheless, college officials don't appear to be dragging their heels and hope to launch negotiations soon to secure a location, he said. College President Bob Knight and his staff are responsible for making a site recommendation to the college's Board of Trustees, which will decide what property to purchase.

The college's fundraising arm, the Clark College Foundation, will conduct the land negotiations and act as the purchaser. Williamson said the foundation has "engaged an attorney" who specializes in real estate negotiations.

PeaceHealth pitch

Meanwhile, PeaceHealth continues to press its case for a land deal with the college, according to the public records. The health care giant wants to sell about 30 acres of its 75-acre parcel, located just east of Interstate 5 in Ridgefield, to the college for a health sciences-focused campus. PeaceHealth's Discovery Pointe Medical Center site would blend educational, medical and retail facilities.

While the 30-acre site "is less than the 70 acres that the college has identified as necessary, we believe that there are adjacent areas totaling approximately 37 acres that will allow the college to assemble the … 70 acres it is seeking," Larry Cohen, PeaceHealth's system director of growth and development, wrote to Jada Rupley, chair of the college's Board of Trustees, in a seven-page, Nov. 28 report. That report includes details of the PeaceHealth site's wetland and infrastructure requirements.

"The sales price is negotiable and undetermined at this point," Cohen wrote. "The opportunity for a community partnership is far more important to us."

PeaceHealth's president and chief mission officer, Alan Yordy, also wrote to Rupley in November, citing numerous benefits to striking a deal with the college.

Those include connecting the college site and the hospital in a setting in which students "can walk directly between classes, laboratories and internships at the medical facilities," Yordy wrote. "Integrated common areas such as plazas, libraries, food service areas could all provide opportunities for medical staff and students to interact and for students to truly experience a work environment in their chosen field."

In pressing their case to the college, PeaceHealth officials also spotlighted the jobs the organization has brought to Vancouver, as well as the positive impacts of its plans to forge a massive new hospital network with Englewood, Colo.-based Catholic Health Initiatives.

"We have moved over 450 jobs to Vancouver and expect this number to grow to over 600 very soon," Brett Bryant, chairman of the PeaceHealth Columbia Network board, wrote in his Nov. 28 letter to the college. Bryant is the Oregon/Washington market executive for Heritage Bank. "Additionally," he wrote, "we are currently in discussions with Catholic Health Initiatives to add seven new hospitals. If completed, more functions and more jobs would shift to Vancouver."

Meanwhile, property owners in Battle Ground still have not been told whether their sites remain in the running, according to Robert Maul, Battle Ground's community development director. Maul and City Manager John Williams met with college officials last summer to propose a campus on acreage north of the city, but within the town's urban growth area.

"We're not going to pester (college officials) out of respect for their decision-making process," Maul said. "They know what they're looking for."