May 17, 2002 11:00 pm

The City of La Grande wants to take the old Safeway building downtown and turn it into the home for its new library. The city council and city manager are pushing to build a 20,000-square-foot library, twice the size of the current facility, using money that has been saved over the years and expecting that a donation from a local patron will pay off the balance.

ODS Health Plans of Portland wants the old Safeway site, so it can tear down the existing building and build a new $6 million structure that would house its offices, the state employment department, the city's library and other businesses.

Now Steve Rzonca, owner of The Rock bowling and fun center, has stepped forward and said he is also interested in the site for a 24-lane bowling alley and expanded fun center. Rzonca envisions bringing more bowlers to the site, including a couple of state tournaments each year. He has made preliminary contact with Safeway, but isn't sure that he can put the deal together.

Standing in his way is the city and ODS. We have contended for a long time that the best tenant for the old Safeway property would be a retailer. We would modify that position as long as the new owner of the site can bring hundreds (if not thousands) of people into the downtown area on a weekly basis. Sites like the one on the corner of Adams Avenue and Fourth Street should not be wasted for office space or public works projects, but should be set aside for a business that will increase the customer base for downtown merchants.

Our city government should be in the business of helping improve the health of the downtown. It's odd then that this same government organization is working to expand the urban growth boundary east of town for the purpose of bringing in a super store that will do more to cripple the retail sector downtown.

Another issue facing Rzonca is what to do with his current site. Some are saying that the proposed city library could be moved to the Rock building across Albany Street from the Union County Senior Center. Another potential use could be the state employment office or expanding the current senior center.

As the population of baby boomers moves into retirement, a much larger senior center will be needed. The Rock might be the perfect site. There are many potential uses for Rzonca's current building; we hope that disposition of the facility won't stand in his way from pursuing his vision of an expanded bowling alley and fun center.

The city should try to help Rzonca in his quest, since we have very few local businesses that are even considering making this kind of expansion. We aren't against ODS growing, but we would rather see the business double its employees instead of just putting up a larger building.

The bowling alley and fun center appear to be the right use for the old Safeway building. We encourage Safeway's real estate division to learn more about Rzonca's proposal and do what it can to help him develop his dream.