In hindsight, tight deadline doomed Ogden's bungled Stadler Rail bid

Friday , July 21, 2017 - 12:00 AM5 comments

CATHY MCKITRICK, Standard-Examiner Staff

OGDEN — The rushed attempt to remove development restrictions on key properties in Business Depot Ogden awakened some elected representatives to a need for less haste and more transparency.

Ogden Mayor Mike Caldwell and his administration only had a few weeks to submit a competitive proposal to Stadler Rail AG involving land on BDO’s west side that included a 20-acre parcel west of the Golden Spike Event Center used for parking. That land already had rail in the ground, boosting its potential appeal to the company.

That parcel, along with the Ogden Nature Center, Golden Spike Event Center and Weber County Fairgrounds, was restricted to recreational use when the federal government transferred the old Defense Depot Ogden property — a Superfund site requiring extensive cleanup —  to the city in the 1970s.

Now a thriving business park, most of Business Depot Ogden caters to light manufacturing and warehouse uses. But the 152-acre Ogden Nature Center serves as a nature preserve and education center, and the Fairgrounds and GSEC host roughly 300 community events each year.

RELATED: Attempt to change land status of Ogden Nature Center, Fairgrounds rouses ire

In order to meet Stadler’s deadline, city administrators — with the help of Ogden’s Washington, D.C., lobbyist Ken Lee — reached out to U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, who attached an amendment to a House bill for national defense funding. 

That amendment would allow the U.S. Secretary of the Interior to negotiate agreements with Ogden and Weber County to remove deed restrictions on remaining DDO property. But it also requires finding equivalent properties within the city or county where those uses could relocate.

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Sharon Holmstrom, who lives in the upper Ogden Valley, articulated the anger people felt when they caught wind of the plan.

“You have the equestrian community, you have the Nature Center, you have the parks, you have all these things that people were upset (about),” Holmstrom said. “When there are restrictions on a piece of land that is for the benefit of the public in terms of recreation, and that restriction is in the process of being removed, then the citizens feel that they should be part of the process. Why didn’t we know — why did this already pass the U.S. House of Representatives?”

In response to the public pushback, Bishop promised to remove his amendment from the bill, and Caldwell halted efforts to pursue Stadler Rail’s manufacturing facility, a deal he said could have provided up to 1,000 good-paying jobs.

But by Wednesday, July 19, the bill — with the amendment intact — had been read twice on the U.S. Senate floor and posted on the calendar for future action. Steve Petersen, counsel to Bishop and working on his 23rd National Defense Authorization Act, explained how the amendment would ultimately be extracted.

“Once bills pass the House, they end up in the Senate where they’re read twice, which is a formality. Then the Senate passes its own version and there’s a call for a conference.”

That conference committee likely won’t convene until September or October, but Petersen said Bishop requested to have the provision removed at that time.

“We were responding to Ogden’s urgent request to expedite 1,000 jobs coming to BDO,” Petersen said. “But it became apparent really quickly that there were a lot of problems with this approach, and the congressman agreed with the mayor that this must be pulled.”

Avoiding future fiascos

Caldwell spent last week hiking and backpacking with his family, squeezing in a rare vacation before the city’s annual Pioneer Days celebration this week.

But early Saturday, July 15, before the Caldwells got home, City Council Chairwoman Marcia White called Caldwell. The seven-member council wasn’t informed about the House amendment.

“All the players and partners weren’t at the table. That was my biggest concern,” White said. “My understanding is it was moving quickly.”

Caldwell doesn’t argue the point.

“In hindsight it would have been nice to have a lot more time to go through this, but Stadler needed a decision in a couple of weeks,” Caldwell said, adding that the Ogden Nature Center, Golden Spike Event Center and adjacent Weber County Fairgrounds were never the city’s target in this particular proposal.

But the public’s perception that those properties were vulnerable surprised Caldwell. He and his staff were only eying the 20-acre parcel west of the fairgrounds, mostly used for overflow parking. The Stadler proposal would have required some adjacent BDO parcels as well, but those did not carry the same deed restrictions, Caldwell said.

“That broad language that came out wasn’t necessarily something we controlled,” Caldwell said of Bishop’s amendment. “You can’t control some of the messaging once it goes back to Congress.”

If the amendment was limited to the 20-acre parcel, Caldwell said it might have worked. “But at this point the brush fire has come through and it’s hard to speculate,” he said.

Taking stock 

According to Janene Eller-Smith, executive director of the Ogden City Council, staff is reviewing policies and procedures to determine whether changes are necessary.

“I’m not aware that any were circumvented,” Eller-Smith said. She also defended certain safeguards written into Bishop’s amendment that would have initiated the need for future City Council action if Stadler selected Ogden as its preferred site.

But Eller-Smith acknowledged that different council members have different levels of concern over the administration’s actions.

“We’re trying to figure out as a whole council how we want to go forward. We’re not there yet,” she said.

Council Vice Chairman Richard Hyer agreed with Eller-Smith that no ordinances or rules were likely violated. But he still lamented that the council was “not in the loop and given the opportunity to offer input.”

White said any lease changes or funding decisions would have required City Council action, which would have brought all partners to the table. At this point, she anticipates more dialogue on changes that could make the process more transparent.

“It’s early to try to figure out what that policy would look like. We’ve had a really good working relationship with this current administration,” White said of Caldwell’s track record.  “We’re all divided on the gravity of this situation other than making sure the Ogden Nature Center stays.”

Contact reporter Cathy McKitrick at 801-625-4214 or cmckitrick@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter at @catmck. 

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