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Congress, economy slow Ogden River restoration to a trickle

Author(s):    Kristen Moulton – The Salt Lake Tribune
December 20, 2008
Page: Section: Breaking News

Ogden » One year after Robert F. Kennedy Jr., chairman of the international Waterkeeper Alliance, spoke at an Ogden River celebration -- also billed as a restoration kickoff -- there is still no grand plan for the river. Nonetheless, the celebration did energize community cleanup efforts and a bid for federal funding for restoration of the river, which flows from Ogden Canyon through the city to the confluence with the Weber River west of downtown.

"It's a long process," said Jason Carey, a consultant from Glenwood Springs, Colo., who has been working with developer Gadi Leshem and an ad hoc committee of people interested in restoring the river. "These restoration projects, even the most fast-tracked of them, take at least two years."

Restoring the Ogden River likely will take much longer.

Carey said the project is on hold pending both congressional action and revival of the economy.

U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, had the project added to the Energy and Water Appropriations bill, which passed the Senate Appropriations Committee last summer. However, none of the appropriations bills was considered by the full Senate, according to Bennett spokeswoman Tara Hendershott.

"It's promising, but it's hard to say what's going to happen next year with all the appropriations bills," she said.

The bill would authorize the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to kick in perhaps $6.5 million of the estimated $10 million to restore 4½ miles of the river, which is the section that flows through Ogden.

The remaining $3.5 million would come from local sources, and a good share of that is in limbo because of economic uncertainty, Carey said. Developers aren't in a position to move forward on their projects.

Christine Carver, who coordinates the ad hoc committee, said she sees progress in a more immediate task: helping residents value the river. Carver has noticed more people using the trail in recent months than ever before, and the city has placed -- and regularly emptied -- more garbage cans, she said. The demolition of buildings in the neighborhood west of Wall Avenue where a new Wal-Mart is planned has made the river, and its path, more visible and inviting, she said.

Leshem, a California investor who began buying properties in Ogden several years ago, assembled those properties and sold them to Wal-Mart this fall. Demolition is expected to be finished early next year.

The community also has gotten behind some big cleanup efforts, Carver noted.

Ron Ball, Ogden City's risk manager, said some 250 volunteers pulled 18 dump-truck loads of debris from the river and its banks one morning last April.

They worked for several hours from the mouth of the canyon to Washington Boulevard, raking from the river and its banks everything from old mattresses and a refrigerator to animal carcasses and uprooted trees. The idea was to open the channel for the expected high water, but it also made the river more attractive, he said.

There is one critic of what has -- and hasn't -- happened in the year since Kennedy's visit. Jeff Salt, the Great Salt Lakekeeper, said Leshem failed to keep him in the loop about the river's restoration, in spite of such a promise when he hosted Kennedy last December. Kennedy toured a couple areas of the river downtown and was feted at a reception for hundreds at the AmeriCan Center, where he urged the community to respect its river.

Leshem that day announced he would spearhead the river's restoration as well as a development called Renaissance Village along the river's banks. Leshem was out of the country this week and unavailable for comment, according to a spokesman, Alex Auerbach.

Salt said he believes Leshem used Kennedy to give his project a "greenwash."

"He used Bobby Kennedy to launch the project, and he hasn't kept his commitment to communicate with us or involve us," Salt said.

Carver, however, said she has e-mailed Salt the notices for several of the ad hoc committee meetings. Auerbach said Leshem has met with the president of Waterkeeper Alliance, Steve Fleischli, in the year since the river celebration.

She wonders if it might make sense to have an advocate dedicated to the Ogden River, a sentiment echoed by Carey. The project, he said, needs both funding and someone who can "champion the leadership to see this project through."

In a down economy, "financing is tough to get"

Ogden City has begun knocking down houses in the neighborhood where the long-awaited Ogden River Project will go, but still has no commitment from California investor Gadi Leshem to demolish those he owns.

Keith Morey, Ogden's community-development manager, said the city is demolishing about eight houses it bought. It also demolished two that were set on fire this fall in a rash of fires in the project area. An Ogden woman was charged with arson in four fires. A resident of an adjacent neighborhood, she told investigators she wanted to hurry up the redevelopment.

The city placed liens on the two properties it demolished, one owned by Leshem and the other by an original owner, which ensures that the city will be repaid when the properties sell, Morey said.

The city is trying to find a deep-pocketed partner for Leshem who could finance massive demolition work, Morey said. Leshem bought most of the homes last year and earlier this year by exercising options the city had secured from original owners.

Leshem a year ago announced Renaissance Village -- housing, shops and restaurants -- but it is still in early stages of planning, said Leshem's spokesman, Alex Auerbach.

"We're finding that with all the developers we work with … financing is tough to get," Morey said.

Given the slowdown, the city has taken some of the planning for the Ogden River Project back in-house, Morey said.

"We're basically trying to get to a point where we have a structured land plan, so when the moment is right or the person is right, we can jump."

–Kristen Moulton (c) 2008 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of Media NewsGroup, Inc. by NewsBank, Inc.