Walt Disney once famously said, “If you can dream it, you can do it.”
Mill Park Imagineering, a Yakima-based nonprofit group, is now looking to make its dream a reality with an ambitious, multiuse concept for the former Boise Cascade mill property.
Early designs call for a variety of entertainment, retail and sports facilities that would capitalize on the Yakima Valley’s strengths.
Developing the 200-plus-acre site, located along Interstate 82 just north of downtown, has been one of the city’s most important economic development priorities since the mill shut down in 2006.
And as the city continues work on purchasing and cleaning up the property, Mill Park Imagineering — a group of prominent local business leaders and property owners — wants its concept to be top of mind when development plans begin to roll forward.
“We wanted to be a part of the discussion of what would become of the Boise Cascade property,” said Brad Christianson, a member of Mill Park Imagineering and owner of several Yakima Valley Ace Hardware stores.
While financing a multiuse development at the former Boise site remains a big question mark, the group says it believes there can be sufficient private investor interest to overcome any obstacles.
Mill Park Imagineering’s core members include Christianson; Ron Anderson, owner of Dedicated Realty; Joe Mann, owner of Ron’s Coin and Collectibles and a significant property owner; Shari Foster, an English lecturer at Central Washington University; and her sister, Kristi Foster, branch manger for the downtown branch of Wheatland Bank.
The group’s members started meeting a year and a half ago, but only started revealing the concept — developed with their own private funds — in the last few months.
“We all brought pieces of the puzzle — ideas and thoughts and our laundry list of what we thought might work there,” Anderson said.
Ultimately, the group wanted to propose a single unified, multiphase development, rather than allow a jumble of different uses to emerge over time.
Indeed, a lot of different uses have been tossed around for the property in recent years.
In 2010, the property owners — Norman and Melvin McDougal of Creswell, Ore., and Greg Demers of Veneta, Ore. — agreed to donate 10 acres for a new multisport facility that would house the now-departed Yakima Bears. The idea, however, was scrapped after Bears management failed to secure public funding for the project.
In the past, everything from car dealerships and warehouses have been proposed for part of the site.
The group wants to avoid such piecemeal development.
“There is one shot on (developing) this property,” Anderson said. “We’ve got to get it right the first time; we won’t get a do-over.”
For Shari Foster, a Yakima resident who has a theater background, the brainstorming process was an opportunity to present a longtime dream: a theme park that would highlight the history, geography and culture of the Yakima Valley.
“It allows me to express my artistic side and my educational side,” she said.
A theme park is one of the core elements of the group’s concept. Other elements include:
• A Tuscan-themed venue for weddings, conferences and other types of events. There could also be space for retail and wine tasting rooms.
• A space-themed science center that could include things like parts of the space shuttle, a mission control replica and a planetarium.
• A town square that would offer retail, restaurant and entertainment options.
• A marketplace that could provide a permanent space for farmers markets and other entrepreneurial ventures.
• Resort and time-share accommodations.
• A multipurpose sports facility and aquatic center that could make Yakima attractive for various events and teams.
The group believes that together these elements will generate thousands of new jobs, much-needed tax revenue and improve the area’s quality of life, which is becoming a top priority for companies looking to locate new or existing facilities.
“Companies and businesses are looking to keep their employees happy,” Anderson said. “People are looking at (quality of life), if not No. 1, equal to income.”
In the last few months, the group has been focused on gaining support from both the public — they plan to present to various community groups — and potential investors.
Securing investors is key to a successful execution of such an ambitious concept, which the group anticipates would take a 20-year buildout and could cost in excess of $1 billion.
The group believes that the project can — and should — be completely privately funded.
“We feel this is a good project. It has the ability to stand on its own,” Anderson said. “If we can attract the right people, the right investors, there would be no need to go to the public (for tax revenue).”
The other key component in the coming months and years is getting buy-in from the city of Yakima, which is looking to purchase the property to qualify for various grants to fund cleanup of the site.
City officials have estimated that cleaning up a municipal landfill on the site could add $20 million to the redevelopment costs. The city recently received a $200,000 grant from the state Department of Ecology to help fund an environmental analysis of the property’s contamination.
The group has presented the concept to top officials, including City Manager Tony O’Rourke.
O’Rourke said he likes the concept but said discussing it further would be premature as development is still many years away.
There’s a still a lot of leg work to do on the property, such as purchasing the property, cleaning it up and installing necessary infrastructure, which could take several years, he said.
“We’ve got to do the heavy lifting first,” he said.
Still, Mill Park Imagineering is ramping up its efforts. The group is working with Enigma Marketing, which is providing pro bono services, on a new website and presentation, and it wants to introduce the concept to as many people as possible.
When it’s time for the city to decide how it should develop the site, the group wants its proposal to be the one that is the most viable and with the most public support, group member Kristi Foster said.
“We want to the citizens of Yakima to say, ‘This is what we want,’” she said.