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Amid WonderBlock debate, Marshall White Center plans emerge as discussion point

By Tim Vandenack - | Nov 29, 2022

Tim Vandenack, Standard-Examiner

Brandon Cooper, head of Ogden’s Community and Economic Development Department, addresses the Ogden City Council on the WonderBlock proposal at a Nov. 15, 2022, meeting.

OGDEN — As the debate simmers over the proposed WonderBlock development in downtown Ogden, some are lamenting what they view as a relegation to secondary status for the Marshall White Center project from the city administration.

Kevin Lundell, broadly speaking, thinks Ogden city officials put too much of a focus on initiatives that promote business and development, like WonderBlock, and not enough emphasis on “social infrastructure,” like the Marshall White Center.

“I’m a little tired of seeing Ogden’s dollars go to support big developers and big business,” said Lundell, a community advocate and proponent of upgrading the Marshall White Center, a city-owned community center. “You have to do both. In this city, we’ve done one over the other for far too long.”

Gina Timmerman, who also closely follows city government workings, echoes that sentiment.

Some “ask the question out loud about how the WonderBlock funding appears to be on a fast track while it has been a long struggle to fund (the) MWC for much less money,” Timmerman said. That the upgraded Marshall White Center wouldn’t generate tax revenue “may explain the difference in how the projects are moving forward.”

Images supplied, City of Ogden

The rendering on the top shows the WonderBlock proposal, looking northeasterly from the corner of 26th Street and Lincoln Avenue. The bottom photo shows the proposed upgrade of the Marshall White Center.

As Lundell sees it, even if the city is on board with the Marshall White Center rebuild, securing funding for community projects always seems to require more cajoling by the public. Securing city help for projects like WonderBlock that boost the tax base and generate new tax funds, on the other hand, never seems to require quite the effort.

To be sure, the city is envisioning a bigger financial commitment toward the WonderBlock plans, a mixed-use proposal calling for apartments, offices, commercial space, two parking garages and a hotel spread over 5.9-acres south of Historic 25th Street. The total estimated WonderBlock price tag, including the cost of shifting to paid parking downtown, is north of $240 million, with somewhere between $117.5 million and $160 million of that coming from the city in the form of bonding. Another $124 million would come from developer J. Fisher Cos.

By contrast, the price tag to rebuild the Marshall White Center, an aging facility that offers recreational and other programming to the low- and moderate-income area where it’s located, totals between $28 million and $30 million. To cover that, the city plans to bond for up to $15 million, tap existing funding and, possibly, seek money from other sources.

The funding disparity is “yet another example of the administration prioritizing business over people,” charged Angel Castillo, a former Ogden planning commissioner and mayoral hopeful.

Mark Johnson, the city’s chief administrative officer, dismisses the notion that the administration of Mayor Mike Caldwell is more inclined toward development projects.

“That’s not accurate,” Johnson said. “We’ve put a lot of time and effort into Marshall White.”

The city has already set aside some $7 million for the Marshall White Center plans, Johnson added, and construction could get going by April. “We’ve got a good start. I think that shows the city’s commitment,” he said.

In no way would the WonderBlock plans, if they ultimately get the green light from the Ogden City Council, hamper the push to rebuild the aging Marshall White Center, Johnson said. Still, the possibility worries Timmerman. The WonderBlock bonding, as proposed, would be paid back with tax-increment funds, Business Depot Ogden lease-revenue money, parking fees and other resources — not through a property tax hike.

“We’re well on our way. We’re excited for the project,” said Johnson, alluding to the Marshall White Center plans. Even with the total proposed bonding for the WonderBlock and Marshall White Center plans, he added, the city is below its bonding limit.

Moreover, Johnson mentioned the possibility of building a second community center after the Marshall White Center rebuild is done that would serve residents of northern Ogden.

Sean Bishop, a member of the Marshall White Advisory Committee, the appointed body that has led the look into rebuilding the MWC, isn’t surprised at the higher WonderBlock funding level. The WonderBlock proposal, with its housing, commercial and office elements, is “tied to things that raise the tax base in a way that maybe the Marshall White Center does not,” he said.

Moreover, he doesn’t take issue with the WonderBlock initiative and doesn’t see it as detracting from the Marshall White Center proposal. “The WonderBlock (proposal) has been around. It’s been a conversation for a long time,” he said.

Whatever the case, Lundell laments what he sees as the relatively small scope of the proposed new Marshall White Center, given what he thinks the community’s needs are. Castillo, like Lundell, also insists that a project like the WonderBlock, with its profit potential, is better left to the private sector.

“This is the city acting as a developer. I simply don’t see this as necessary at this point in time,” she said.

The City Council has scheduled a public hearing on the two proposed bonds for the WonderBlock proposal for Jan. 10, when it may take final action. Ahead of that, the WonderBlock plans are the focus of a Dec. 8 informational open house and a Dec. 13 meeting, when the public will be able to offer the Ogden City Council their thoughts on the proposal.

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