Imagine a town center in Covington. What should be there and how should it look?
The city’s downtown and town center is what the City Council will be imagining for the next several weeks as the members consider the zoning and design plan for the area.
The Council heard testimony from 48 speakers Tuesday at a public meeting on the downtown zoning plan during the Covington City Council meeting.
Prior to the public hearing, the council members and the Planning Commission met in a joint meeting. The commission presented the recommendations on the zoning plan, which the members have been working on for several months.
The most controversial recommendation was a 4-3 vote against allowing 24-hour emergency medical centers or hospitals in the town center area.
Valley Medical Center plans to build a medical plaza with a free standing emergency department on a 10-acre site owned by Ashton Capital. The site is located behind Safeway and the plan for the plaza includes medical offices, retail, a public plaza and green spaces.
MultiCare is also planning to build a free standing emergency department on the site where the facility’s Urgent Care clinic is located, which is in the downtown area, but not the town center. MultiCare also intends to construct a 58 bed hospital. Construction of a hospital must be approved by the state Department of Health.
At the Tuesday public hearing most of the 48 who testified spoke in favor of allowing an emergency department in the town center, asking the council to go against the planning commission recommendation.
At a public hearing before the Planning Commission June 3, the verdict was split on the emergency department with 27 speaking, 26 about the medical facility in the town center with 13 for and 13 against.
But at the Tuesday meeting it was far more weighted toward allowing the zoning for an emergency department in the town center.
According to Richard Hart, planning manager for the city, of the 48 who spoke, 15 or 31 percent were Covington residents and 33 or 69 percent were not.
A total of 44 spoke about the emergency center zoning, with 38 or 86 percent in favor and six or 14 percent against allowing an emergency facility in the town center.
Allowing asphalt plants in the downtown was another zoning issue addressed and five spoke about that issue with four against and one person supporting it.
Harto reminded the speakers numerous times during the evening the testimony should address only zoning, not a specific development proposal.
As the hearing proceeded it was clear most speakers were directing their comments to the Valley plan in the town center.
Many were small business owners describing the difficulty of the current economy and the hope an emergency center would bring in jobs and people willing to spend money in town.
Josh Lyons, owner of Pinnacle Physical Therapy, said, “I see this as a great investment.”
Lyons stated there can be a “wish list” for what is wanted in the town center, “but who is going to pay for it.”
Steven McRae, manager of Kits Camera in Covington said, “A lot of people are having problems staying alive. This is an opportunity for more jobs in our area.”
Kevin Holland, a member of the Economic Development Council, said he initially submitted a letter opposing the zoning allowing the emergency department in the town center, but Tuesday stated, “in light of information not available” to him at the time he has modified his position.
Holland said his concerns were loss of retail and property tax dollars if Valley, a public hospital, developed the site rather than a large retailer.
“Family living wage jobs would offset that to me,” Holland said. “I am willing to change my picture of what the town center should look like.”
Holland suggested the council should consider allowing the emergency department with conditions.
Representatives from Valley and MultiCare also spoke at the hearing.
Mike Glenn, senior vice president of business development for Valley, said, “I think Covington has an incredible opportunity to do something special. I speak with great conviction. Health care is now moving into where people are living, working and playing. This is a fabulous opportunity if Covington will allow that use to make this come to life.”
Valley commissioners Sue Bowman and Don Jacobson also spoke in favor of allowing the zoning for the project.
Hugh Kodama, Covington MultiCare administrator and a member of the Economic Development Council, has stated previously his belief the town center zoning should not allow an emergency medical department and he spoke about his reasons to the council Tuesday.
“This should not be a decision between two competing health care systems,” Kodama said. “This should be a decision about the future of Covington.... Close your eyes and imagine the city you want to develop. That should be our legacy. I strongly support emergency services in Covington, but I don’t believe emergency services should be in the town center.”
Following the public hearing Mayor Pro Tem Jeff Wagner said, “This was a great public hearing. It gave us a lot of information to go through.”
Councilman Mark Lanza noted public hearings can often be “volatile, but the people stuck with the facts.”
Harto stated, “It is incredibly important for the community to participate in the decision making process we have in front of us. Our vision for Covington is an unmatched quality of life and that is the foundation we work from.”