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Ogden WonderBlock plans face more scrutiny, open house set for Tuesday

By Tim Vandenack - | Nov 13, 2022

Image supplied, City of Ogden

The WonderBlock area in Ogden, as envisioned in a redevelopment plan crafted by J.F. Capital, working with the city. This image shows a proposed pedestrian walkway extending between 25th and 26th streets.

OGDEN — A project like the WonderBlock proposal in downtown Ogden doesn’t come around every day.

Ben Nadolski, chair of the Ogden City Council, calls it “a generational project,” the sort of large-scale initiative that comes around just once a generation.

“It’s a big project,” he said. “My initial thoughts are, it’s an exciting project. It’s bigger than anything I’ve seen as a council member.”

With two bonds totaling at least $117.5 million proposed to help cover the cost of the initiative and the development of 5.9 acres of land in the city’s core at stake, it’s also likely to get plenty of attention, most immediately at a City Council meeting and open house next Tuesday starting at 4 p.m. The plans — costing $241.5 million, maybe more — call for development of apartments, a hotel, office and retail space, a grocery store and parking facilities on the open plot between Lincoln and Grant avenues north of 26th Street.

Since 2020, the administration of Mayor Mike Caldwell has been working with developer J. Fisher Companies, previously J.F. Capital, to put the proposal together. Likewise, the WonderBlock proposal has come up for discussion periodically at City Council meetings. However, plan details and financing particulars — including a parallel proposal to shift to paid parking in Ogden’s downtown area — were publicly unveiled last week.

Indeed, Nadolski said he and the other City Council members are “in fact-finding mode.” They have yet to get up to speed on all the project details, though the administration has kept them in the loop as efforts with J. Fisher have proceeded. “We have not made any decisions yet because we don’t have all the information yet,” he said.

At any rate, the City Council is scheduled to take preliminary action on Monday related to the plans — whether to back up to $75 million in bonding for the project with sales tax revenue. Council members are also scheduled to set a public hearing on the bond question for Jan. 10, 2023.

Meantime, the plans are raising questions among some in the public. Heath Satow, a frequent critic of some of Ogden’s development initiatives, has questions about the process that led to the proposal. He worries the process that led to selection of J. Fisher wasn’t competitive and that the city is assuming more risk than it should.

“We just keep on giving and giving and giving,” he said. “I don’t think we should be giving away this much without a competitive process.”

More specifically, Satow suggests the city should have formally sought proposals from developers about how to use the WonderBlock land, that going that route could potentially have required less financial commitment from the city.

As is, the proposal calls for the city to bond for an amount between $64 million and $75 million to help J. Fisher with the housing, hotel and commercial elements of the plans. The company will put up $124 million.

The proposal also calls on the city to bond for an amount between $53.5 million and $85 million to build two parking facilities in the WonderBlock space and to cover the costs of shifting the downtown area to paid parking.

David Sawyer, deputy manager of the Ogden Business Development office, defended the process that led to the partnership with J. Fisher.

J. Fisher had expressed interest in developing the WonderBlock site dating back to late 2016, he said. Starting in 2020, the city “considered concepts from several potential developers” related to the land, even if it didn’t put out a formal request for proposals, or RFP. Ultimately, officials settled on J. Fisher, working with the Ogden Redevelopment Agency Board.

“For the WonderBlock project, the direct negotiation process satisfied the (Ogden Redevelopment Agency’s) vision and objectives for the site. Therefore, it is unlikely that an RFP process would have yielded a greater result,” Sawyer said.

At this stage, plan details, by and large, aren’t up for discussion. Feedback at numerous public meetings and events factored in creation of the plans, Sawyer said. Now it’s up to the City Council to decide whether to bond to help finance the project and whether to shift to the paid parking scheme.

At Tuesday’s Ogden City Council work session, which starts at 4 p.m., the council will go over plan particulars. An open house is scheduled to start at 4:45 p.m., when the public will be able to ask city officials about the plans. The Ogden City Council meets at 6 p.m., when it is to take up consideration of whether to back bonding with sales tax funds, meant as a safeguard, and scheduling of the bond hearing.

The varied meetings and sessions will be held at the Ogden Municipal Building, 2549 Washington Blvd.

The plans call for paying off the bonds with a mix of tax-increment finance revenue, lease-revenue funding from operation of Business Depot Ogden and fees generated by the proposed shift to paid parking.

While Tuesday’s open house will be informal, formal testimony will be accepted at the bond hearings, tentatively scheduled for Jan. 10. Janene Eller-Smith, administrator for the Ogden City Council, recommends speaking out sooner.

“We always encourage residents to provide feedback sooner than that if they want to do that,” she said.

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