Mission: End standoff over UW branch campus

OLYMPIA — The state is sending in a new player to break the political stalemate over where to build a new University of Washington branch campus in northern Snohomish County.

Given the costly war of words and legislative sparring on this subject the last six months, this will be no simple mission to accomplish.

“Am I confident? I’m hopeful,” said Rep. Mike Sells, D-Everett, one of the legislators most deeply immersed in this debate.

Today, there’s no clear means of collapsing the wall separating those backing a site surrounding the transit center in Everett and those pushing a location on undeveloped land in Smokey Point.

Legislation signed last week directs the Higher Education Coordinating Board to bring together interested parties in Snohomish, Island and Skagit counties to discuss where to build the campus. A consensus recommendation on a site is due to the Legislature by Dec. 1.

Ann Daley, HEC board executive director, said she hopes to release a game plan in two to three weeks. The agency will get $100,000 to carry it out.

“After I get a little better assessment of where things stand in the view of the people who’ve been closest to it, then we’ll design a very open process for everyone to weigh in,” she said.

She’s faced with a difficult task. There are controversies to revisit and bad feelings to overcome before any breakthrough will be realized.

Much has occurred since the November release of a $1 million state-financed evaluation of potential sites for the college.

The report ranked the top four finalists. The city of Everett’s proposal for roughly 25 acres around the transit center emerged with the highest score. Close behind was 369 acres of privately owned land on the edge of Marysville near Smokey Point.

Almost immediately, owners of each site dug in, hired lobbyists and snared support of influential lawmakers in hopes of winning the prize of a UW franchise.

Everett’s squad of lobbyists worked quietly to line up votes. The landowners’ team campaigned publicly against the merits of the Everett proposal and the validity of the report.

The competing lobbying efforts coupled with gridlock among key legislators of the three counties led to the current state of affairs, in which these next eight months could determine whether access to higher education grows significantly in the region in the near future.

“It is very sad to see it stalled at this point,” said Carol Nelson, the president and CEO of Cascade Bank in Everett, who served in 2005 on the state-appointed advisory committee that studied university options in the three counties.

Local elected officials should set aside constituents’ demands and cooperate on a finding a plan that’s best for the entire state, she said.

Finding common ground in this turf war won’t come quickly.

“You have powerful people in the Legislature who truly disagree on where it should go,” said Snohomish County Councilman Brian Sullivan, a former state lawmaker. “I’m not exactly sure how we can break this logjam.”

Marysville Mayor Dennis Kendall said, “Everyone needs to unwind on this thing and see how HEC board is going to handle this. It’s still going to be a struggle until someone decides if they want it to be a rural or an urban campus.”

Sells said: “Everybody is still too close to it. It will take some time to see if there are options. I’m not willing to fight the old fights.”

Ideas that might prove easier to unite around are popping up.

These included expanding classes of the University Center run by Everett Community College and setting up learning centers for upper-division coursework in places such as Oak Harbor and Arlington.

Sen. Jean Berkey, D-Everett, said nothing should be off the table now.

“We’ve wasted two years arguing amongst ourselves. That’s got to stop,” she said.

A lot will depend on the approaches of two leading protagonists — Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, and Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island.

Dunshee is an entrenched backer of the Everett site and Haugen is an equally resolute proponent of Marysville. Their differences prevented a decision on a site this session.

Fissures may be forming in the wall between their positions.

“I never said no to Everett,” Haugen said. “I said no to that particular location.”

Though Dunshee remains glued to Everett Station as a hub for the UW, he said he’s open to spreading out opportunities such as opening new learning centers elsewhere.

No solutions will be found quickly, he said.

“Compromises are complex,” he said.

Sharon Hart, executive director of the Island County Economic Development Council, said decision-makers should not hurry.

She took part in choosing the location of the Washington State University Vancouver branch campus and said that experience taught her the importance of making the right decision.

“It’s one of those things where patience pays off,” she said.

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