Lakewood city officials found a ready use for property that police seized in late 2008 following a prostitution sting along a corridor with a long history of drugs, illicit sex and violent crime.
A public works shop now sits on the 1-acre site along Pacific Highway south of Bridgeport Way, the former home of two massage parlors. City maintenance workers park heavy equipment there, and stow the salt and sand used for snow removal.
The property is set to return to private hands as early as next year as the city prepares to sell it and consolidate its maintenance operations at newly acquired property on Front Street, east of Clover Park Technical College.
The move illustrates the growing capability of the 16-year-old city to maintain its own streets after relying on Pierce County for decades to do that work. It also reflects the continued redevelopment of the Ponders area, long known as a crime haven.
In addition, the property consolidation will let officials put a little more money into maintenance work in tight budget times and provide a quicker response to residents’ requests to fill potholes and do other work, officials said.
City maintenance workers and their equipment are now spread across three locations that are miles apart.
“It doesn’t create a very efficient operation,” Public Works Director Don Wickstrom said.
Road work in Pierce County’s second-largest city is coming of age just as neighboring Tacoma faces major cuts that will affect pothole response and other services. A gaping shortfall in Tacoma’s two-year budget has prompted the city manager to reduce employees tasked with street work by about one-third.
Lakewood still has challenges, too. Although the city has some money to fill potholes, it’s short of funding for bigger projects to extend the life of old streets. Next year, the City Council is expected to send a measure to the ballot asking voters to increase their property taxes to pay for roadwork.
The city leases office space on Lakeview Drive for the nine employees who maintain Lakewood’s streets, storm drains, landscaping and traffic signals.
In late 2008, under the authority of state drug forfeiture laws, the city seized the Pacific Highway location. Firefighters burned down one former massage parlor for a training exercise, Police Chief Bret Farrar said. The other is boarded up near where the city’s grader and front loader are parked.
City officials considered holding on to the property but decided it would be put to better use by growing the city’s tax base.
“We did want to return property to private enterprise to continue the redevelopment of Pacific Highway,” Mayor Doug Richardson said.
Around the same time, police also shut down, but didn’t seize, another massage parlor across the street. Earlier this month, the city held a ground-breaking ceremony for a Kenworth heavy truck dealership that will be built on the site. Finance Director Choi Halladay estimated it will contribute between $250,000 to $500,000 a year in sales-tax revenue, helping officials avoid deeper cuts in the proposed city 2013-14 budget.
The city also owns property on 47th Avenue where it keeps crushed rock and waste containers to deposit dirt and other debris from job sites.
Moving the Pacific Highway and Lakeview operations to Front Street will free up $80,000 a year in lease payments that can go toward street work, Wickstrom said. The city essentially leases the Pacific Highway property to itself, moving payments to its drug seizure fund from its street fund. The proceeds from a property sale would go to the seizure fund, which pays for overtime and equipment purchases to assist police drug investigations.
The city bought the two-acre Front Street property for $563,000, and the sale should close by Dec. 6. The move should occur by March, Wickstrom said.
Half of the $2 million street maintenance budget goes to power and maintain street lights and traffic signals, the public works director said. The fund also pays for some work by plans examiners and construction inspectors. In January, the city spent $100,000 from the budget on snow removal.
“On a skimpy budget, that’s a significant amount,” Wickstrom said of the lease savings.
Lakewood had little ability to maintain its streets when it became a city in 1996, and it relied on Pierce County to keep doing that work. In the last seven years, it contracted out to private companies sweeping streets and sucking out debris that can clog storm drains. In 2009, it hired the first of its in-house maintenance staff, Wickstrom said.
Pierce County continues to install and maintain street signs and refresh the striping on streets.
Wickstrom said bringing maintenance duties in-house saves money and improves service.
“We think we’re more accountable and responsive,” he said.