November 25, 2001 11:00 pm

La Grande City Manager Wes Hare has been promoting the idea of the city buying the current Safeway site as the future home of the public library. We wonder why?

With the announcement that ODS Health Plans is interested in buying the Safeway property for redevelopment into a 40,000-square-foot joint project with the city, Hare sees this as a dream come true. Hare sees the complex as a chance for the city to work with a private business in a public/private partnership to improve the downtown core area.

The Observer applauds ODSs willingness to invest in La Grande by putting up its own building and want- ing to double the size of its current staff to 100. It also is good news that EONI, a local Internet service provider, needs to expand beyond its current site. And Bob Nelson, local manager of the state employment office, has said hes interested in leasing space in the new building. But lets not kid ourselves. Using the current Safeway site for the state employment offices, a city library, ODS and EONI is not going to improve the retail picture in downtown La Grande.

The downtown is looking too much like a service sector area already, not a traditional retail district. For some reason the city manager is sold on the city spending more than $2 million to build a new public library rather than consider working with Eastern Oregon University to create a comprehensive library complex that will take us into the 22nd century. Now that the county has initiated an effort to consider creating a countywide library district, perhaps any anonymous donor should hold off to see if such a district is popular with the majority of Union Countys citizens.

What will happen to the old GTE building in downtown La Grande if ODS moves from it and the company successfully purchases the current Safeway site? Also will we have other vacant buildings where the state employment offices are located and where EONI is located? And what will happen to the current library site? (It could cost $100,000 or more to demolish the building.) The city council needs to look beyond the short-term into the distant future and determine if the proposed public-private building project is the best use when retail land is in short supply downtown.

The proposed construction cost of the 40,000-square-foot building, excluding the $1.3 million for the land purchase, is more than $115 per square foot. That would drive square foot lease prices to almost $1 per square foot. Much of the downtowns retail space is currently going for 35 cents to 50 cents per square foot. Were not sure if the downtown is ready for such higher prices.

Outside of ODS, we dont see this project as creating new long-term jobs. If ODS wants to put up a new building for itself and EONI, and then try and get retailers to lease the remaining space, this could turn out to be a win for downtown. The city should work with the university and the county for a broader approach to a public library. Finally, the Employment Department certainly must have other options available, least of all leaving its current site vacant.