The Methow Valley has been remarkably successful at tackling high-minded projects that seem outsized for such a small community. The Methow Trails system (and all its year-round iterations). Westernization. The Winthrop Rink. Loup Loup Ski Bowl. The Susie Stephens Trail. The new Winthrop library. The new Okanogan County Fire District 6 station. You can add many others in the public (Twisp civic building), nonprofit (Room One, The Merc Playhouse) and private (Sun Mountain Lodge, Hank Konrad’s growing village of commercial buildings in Twisp) sectors. And, one of these days, I’m sure of it, a new swimming pool complex to serve the entire valley.
Sometimes it takes years, or decades, to realize the original ambition. Money is always involved, as are leadership, commitment, patience, perseverance and the maintenance of good will as things slog along.
So it comes as a bit of a surprise when a grand idea stumbles.
The idea of a recreational path along the northern banks of the Chewuch and Methow Rivers — from the Highway 20 bridge at the four-way stop in downtown Winthrop to the other Highway 20 bridge downstream of where the rivers meet — has been around for as long as 50 years. At some point it was given a name: RiverWalk, with or without the capital “W” depending on where you read about it.
It’s a great concept, and most people seem to like the idea of being able to stroll along the banks and connect with other portions of the valley’s still-growing trail system. It would reverse a decision, made in the century previous to the previous century, for the town to essentially turn its back on the rivers when the heart of Winthrop was established on what is now called Riverside Avenue. Back then, commerce and transportation happened on the street; the rivers were not a tourist attraction and in fact were a bit of a flood-prone nuisance.
Westernization only happened, back in the early 1970s, with complete buy-in from property owners, and that took some doing. But the back ends of the buildings still did not embrace the rivers.
For the past several years, the Town of Winthrop — with some assistance from Methow Trails — has been trying to convince property owners on the river side of Riverside to provide easements that would allow the RiverWalk project to be completed. It’s been a struggle, as some owners have raised concerns that apparently cannot currently be resolved. If Methow Trails — which crafted an amazing complex of easements and agreements to create its trail system — can’t convince people to sign on, I’m not sure who can. Without a complete sequence of easements, RiverWalk isn’t going anywhere. Like a chain with missing links, it wouldn’t connect anything.
I think RiverWalk is a great idea and like a lot of people I’m disappointed to see it stalled. That said, I don’t think it’s fair to blame the property owners. They are well within their rights in deciding whether or not to participate, for their own reasons. They haven’t done anything wrong. It’s their decision, and the rest of us must respect that, if we in turn expect our decisions to be respected.
So now what? The town has put a lot energy into the RiverWalk project, and lined up supporting grants to help build it. But short of initiating the eminent domain process — and I don’t think anyone wants to see it come to that — there’s not much else the town can do for now, at least as the project is currently envisioned.
It may be prudent for the town to at least complete one portion of the path, a pedestrian underpass beneath the Chewuch River Bridge for which funding has been acquired. Failing to follow through might force the town to repay grants that it doesn’t have the money for. There has also been talk of looking upstream toward the Sa Teekh Wa bridge as a potential recreational route. In marketing circles, I think they call that re-visioning. That’s something the Town Council will need to decide.
As for RiverWalk, it’s certainly not a failure of goodwill or good effort that the project seems roadblocked. Things just aren’t working out. Some day that may change. In the mean time, the valley will be busy turning a few other dreams into reality.