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Long delayed plans to reunify Santa Rosa’s Old Courthouse Square got a big boost Tuesday when city officials supported borrowing the money needed to get a scaled-down version of the project underway by the spring.

The City Council’s unanimous decision to slash the project from $17 million to no more than $10 million and instruct city staff to explore financing a portion of the cost represented a significant step forward for the controversial project.

“Today is the time to stop studying it, stop talking about it and start working on it,” Vice Mayor Chris Coursey said. “Let’s get it done.”

The decision was a coup for the group of downtown property owners and business leaders who have been urging city staff for months to back away from the more elaborate design endorsed by the previous council in favor of a less elaborate, more traditional square similar to plazas in popular tourist destinations like Healdsburg and Sonoma.

“This is a huge day,” said developer Hugh Futrell, one of the leaders of Coalition to Restore Courthouse Square. “This is as definitive an action as anyone could have hoped for.”

By scaling back the project and expressing willingness to borrow to build it, the council made it clear it was serious about moving forward with a project that has been discussed for more than 20 years but has never gained traction.

“Timing is everything and the timing seems to be right now,” said Councilman Gary Wysocky.

The latest design was selected by the council in 2007 after an extensive design competition. It included bold features such as a glass water wall, light arbor and several kiosks. The previous council signed off the design over the objections of downtown business leaders who called the design dated and the price excessive.

Then-Mayor Scott Bartley suggested a fundraising campaign tapping private donors would be needed to pay for the project.

The 1.5-acre square was split by Mendocino Avenue in 1966. The current council has voiced strong support for reunited its two halves.

Mayor John Sawyer, whose family owned a downtown business for 66 years, said he remembers when the former courthouse was demolished and the square bisected. He said he felt the city had lost its heart in the process.

“I believe it’s time to replace that heart with a usable space for our citizens,” Sawyer said.

Many questions remain about just what that space will look like. A $10 million version or the project will be substantially different than the current design, on which the city spent more than $500,000. How quickly the project can be redesigned with input from the public remains to be seen.

City officials said the project would have to be redrawn with a funding plan on track by the end of the year in order for the project to be able to begin construction by May, to take advantage of a full construction season.

The business coalition has vowed to speed that process by paying for the construction drawings for the first phase of the project, installing streets on the east and west sides of the square with about 40 more parking spaces than the existing plan. It would also shrink the size of the central park.

Futrell said he estimated those costs at about $200,000, $115,000 of which the group has already set aside.

The lack of parking in the current plan was one of the main concerns of downtown business groups, including the Chamber of Commerce. Merchants worried that installing side streets with limited parking would make the area less attractive to shoppers.

How much the city will ultimately borrow won’t be clear until the public settles on the features it wants to see in the square and the council considers what other funds it can use, said Chief Finance Officer Debbie Lauchner.

There are several pots of money that can be used for the project, including general fund reserves, parking reserves, $1.3 million in utility money to replace aging underground pipes, and $6.5 million pending from the sale of the Hyatt property, Lauchner said.

The key, however, is the council’s willingness to support her idea that the city borrow the balance needed to see the project to completion. Lauchner recommends using a tax-exempt financing tool called certificates of participation. The city would identify property valuable enough to be used as collateral for the money it needs to borrow and would transfer that property to an investor, who would then lease it back to the city long-term.

The financing method is commonly used in the state, in part because getting two-thirds of voters to agree to tax themselves with general obligation bonds is a huge challenge, Lauchner said.

At least one business person took issue with borrowing the money instead of asking the voters for their say.

“If we are the ones who are going to have to pay for it, then we should have a vote,” said Suzanne Ell, an accountant with an office on the square.

Borrowing the money will significantly increase the cost. If the entire $10 million project were financed using this method, it would cost the city’s general fund about $670,000 per year for 30 years, or a total of $20 million.

The coalition members are still hoping, however, that the city will turn to local lenders, which they claim can front the money necessary at lower rates and fees.

Whatever the financing mechanism, business leaders and others expressed excitement that a project long viewed as important to making downtown a more vibrant destination was finally becoming a reality. Lauchner said she expects to return with funding options by the end of the year.

“This is something that has been long desired and long delayed,” said Chamber President Jonathan Coe, “and I think we’re finally at a place where we can move it forward.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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