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Originally published Sunday, August 4, 2013 at 8:06 PM

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House Speaker Frank Chopp flexes muscle on historic PacMed Center

The debate over whether college programs will end up in the PacMed Center provides a rare glimpse into the power wielded by House Speaker Frank Chopp, a veteran politician who eschews the limelight.

Seattle Times staff reporters

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State House Speaker Frank Chopp has emerged as a central player in the effort to relocate community-college health programs into the PacMed Center using state dollars.

The public authority that owns the building is debating whether to let a national homebuilder convert the historic Beacon Hill landmark into market-rate apartments, or go with a proposal to use it for college courses and nonprofit social-service providers.

The Pacific Hospital Preservation and Development Authority hasn’t made a decision yet. But Chopp told its governing council recently that he’d cleared his calendar to personally help close a lease deal for Seattle Central Community College and service providers.

Chopp, a Democrat whose 43rd Legislative District includes the college, rarely loses.

He’s the main reason the proposal has gotten this far, according to Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina.

Tom, who became majority leader earlier this year after crossing party lines to give Republicans control of the state Senate, says Chopp single-handedly got $20 million included in the state capital budget for the plan.

The appropriation sidestepped the usual competitive vetting process for funding community-college capital projects.

The money would pay to renovate the art deco-style building. An additional $4.8 million included in the state operating budget would cover lease payments and operating costs for the first two years.

The state would, in essence, become a landlord and sublease the space to Seattle Central Community College and nonprofits engaged in social services. Nonstate agency tenants would cover all of their own costs.

The GOP-led Senate was opposed to the project, but Chopp made it clear to them during prolonged budget negotiations this year that “if we were going to have a deal to go home, it had to be in there,” Tom said.

Tom said he doesn’t support the plan but called it “a home run for the city of Seattle and for advocacy programs, which Frank is very supportive of.”

Chopp didn’t dispute he’s responsible for getting the project in the budget but said Republicans got large projects of their own in the capital budget this year. And, the speaker said, it’s not the first time he’s strongly advocated for things he believes in.

“Sure, I play that role from time to time. But not just on this one. I do it on countless things over the years. There’s nothing unusual here.”

Rarely in limelight

It is unusual for Chopp to make the news as a central player in a deal like this.

He’s appeared twice before the development authority board recently, arguing for the proposal to be approved. He’s also inserted himself into the middle of the negotiations.

Although widely considered second only to the governor in terms of political clout, Chopp normally eschews attention. He rarely holds news conferences or sends out news releases. Reporters in Olympia will cooperatively block exit routes when he leaves meetings in an attempt to get an interview.

Since becoming speaker of the House in 2002, Chopp has not sponsored a single bill, other than resolutions honoring people and causes. But he’s known for making sure that lawmakers in vulnerable districts have their names on important bills.

“I’ve gotten a lot of stuff done,” Chopp said in a 2006 interview. “It just doesn’t have my name on it.”

In the case of the PacMed lease, Chopp said he was approached by several people last fall about moving Seattle Central Community College health-care programs and social-service nonprofits into the building.

“They came to me and said, ‘Frank, can you help us on this?’ I said, ‘Yes, this seems really exciting,’ ” he said.

Exciting, supporters say, because the proposal echoes the building’s historic role of delivering health care to those in need.

The PacMed Center, formerly known as the Pacific Tower, was built in 1932 by the federal government as a U.S. Marine Hospital to care for veterans, merchant seamen, the Coast Guard and the poor.

By 1980, the hospital had built a legacy as a hub for innovation in health care: the place where Dr. E. Donnall Thomas did groundbreaking research that led to the world’s first bone-marrow transplant; where the Indochinese Language Bank, which provided interpreters to area hospitals, got started; and where the hospital demonstrated the value of partnering with community clinics.

The property was transferred in 1981 to the preservation and development authority, which has used money raised from leasing the building to fund grants to nonprofits that support charity medical and dental services.

The building became Amazon.com’s home from 1998 to 2011, but the authority hasn’t been able to find a tenant to fill the large space Amazon vacated.

“It’s not just about the revenue stream” to the authority, Chopp told the authority’s council at a recent public hearing. “It matters how the building is used. It should be used in a purpose consistent with its history.”

He noted in an interview that several other lawmakers also supported the effort and wrote a letter to that effect to the development authority.

Community colleges’ projects usually go through a competitive vetting process in which all the proposals get ranked in order of importance. The list gets approved by the state Board of Community and Technical Colleges and then is sent to the Legislature for consideration.

Lawmakers in the state House can advocate for projects that are not on the competitive lists, but generally are required to fill out a form that identifies the proposal, what district it’s in and who is asking for it, and describes the need and benefit. The state Senate does not require such forms to be filled out.

The PacMed proposal was not on the community-college board’s list of projects, nor was any form filled out by Chopp or other lawmakers.

House Capital Budget Chairman Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, said the proposal “came through conversation.”

Tom would not talk about any discussions he may have had with Chopp, but said, “It was pretty well understood that he had to have it. It was more than communicated to us.”

Was it an “end run”?

Jill Wakefield, chancellor of Seattle Community Colleges, said her office was approached by people in the community last fall about relocating health-care programs to the PacMed building. College administrators liked the idea.

Wakefield said Seattle Central has wanted to create a regional health-care education center for years. A feasibility study was done in 2009. The idea at the time included constructing a new building at a cost of at least $80 million, but funding wasn’t available. Relocating to the PacMed building was not considered then.

Century Pacific, the authority’s leasing agent, said the tower has about 274,000 rentable square feet. If approved, Seattle Central would become the main tenant, occupying 80,000 square feet, Wakefield said.

“What this will allow us to do is bring the programs at Seattle Central and Seattle Vocational Institute together to expand. Seattle Central is basically landlocked and the cost of facilities in Seattle is prohibitive for us. So this allows us to bring the programs together and to expand,” she said.

The vocational institute is part of Seattle Central but located on a separate campus.

Seattle Central wants to offer a bachelor's degree in nursing, among other health-related programs. It currently enrolls around 280 full-time students, she said, and the PacMed proposal would allow that to grow to 425 by 2018.

Wakefield said she supports the process of vetting community-college projects through the board but argued that sometimes things come up that need to be pursued anyway.

“I don’t think we want to discourage these once-in-a-lifetime opportunities that come through,” she said.

Marty Brown, executive director of the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, said the board has rules regarding this type of proposal.

The board calls it the “end-run policy.” It was created in 2006 because of concern that colleges were going outside the normal process too often to get money for capital projects.

The policy allows for sanctions, such as a college losing its place in line for a project on an approved list, if it’s found a school was trying to circumvent the normal process, Brown said.

However, if a project came forward because the Legislature wanted it, the college may be held harmless.

The PacMed proposal is being reviewed to determine what happened, Brown said.

Andrew Garber: 360-236-8268 or agarber@seattletimes.com. Material from The Seattle Times archives was used in this story.

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