Volunteers contact owners along project’s intended route
Can an informal citizen group that is working on a way to complete the Town of Winthrop’s RiverWalk project bring the idea back to life where government was stymied?
Two members of that recently formed group — Brooke Bourn and Rita Kenny — told the Winthrop Town Council last week that they are confident their personal efforts to engage with affected property owners on the RiverWalk route can help the town successfully complete the project.
For several years, the town has devoted time and resources to a plan to extend a pedestrian walkway following the banks of the Chewuch and Methow rivers, from the Sa Teekh Wa bridge downstream to the Spring Creek Bridge, including an underpass beneath the north end of the Chewuch River Bridge at the four-way stop. Much of the trail would be on the back side of commercial buildings that front on Riverside Avenue.
The main roadblock to completing the trail has been dealing with concerns raised by the owners of Riverside Avenue property whose parcels would be crossed by the path. Those concerns range from whether the backs of their buildings would have to meet the town’s Westernization requirements, to loss of parking to ongoing maintenance to questioning the need for such a path.
Despite its ongoing efforts the town has been unable to get easement agreements from all the affected property owners.
At last week’s council meeting, Bourn and Kenny said they have been talking with individual property owners “between the bridges” — the Spring Creek pedestrian bridge and the Chewuch River bridge in downtown Winthrop — and have received generally positive feedback but not full commitments yet.
They asked for council support to continue their informal efforts. Bourn said property owners would like to see a more-detailed conceptual design “to get a bigger picture.”
Kenny, former owner of Winthrop Mountain Sports, said she has been involved in the RiverWalk project for many years and continues to be enthused about it, despite the slow progress.
Kenny said that while property owners she has been able to contact so far still have questions and concerns, she has not yet gotten a definitive “no.”
“It’s such a great project for the town,” Kenny said. “I think it can work.”
Bourn and Kenny suggested that a meeting of affected property owners and town representatives be convened to hash out concerns. Mayor Sally Ranzau agreed that such a meeting might be productive.
“We need champions for this,” the mayor said.
Council member Joseph O’Driscoll, who earlier expressed frustration that the project had apparently stalled, said “I love the fact that you’re behind this” and asked Bourn and Kenny if “you think this is possible.” The response was “yes.”
“We wouldn’t have gone this far if we didn’t believe in it,” Kenny said.
“Please, make this happen,” O’Driscoll said.
In 2020, the town developed a “letter of intent for RiverWalk easement” and began working in concert with Methow Trails to obtain easements for the trail. By agreeing to terms of the letter, property owners will allow the town to have access for surveying and planning the trail’s route.
Ranzau reported in early 2020 that 14 of 22 affected property owners had signed letters of intent. But at a council meeting in October 2021, Ranzau said there were still several holdouts.
At a recent council meeting, council members lamented lack of progress on the project and questioned whether further efforts will make any difference.
Phase I of the project, which includes the underpass, required numerous local, state and federal regulatory permits, and is funded by a state Recreation and Conservation Office (RCO) grant plus federal transportation monies. Phase II would be from the kiosk behind the Farmer’s Exchange Building to Spring Creek Bridge. Phase III would extend upriver on the Chewuch River from the back of the Emporium to Sa Teekh Wah bridge.
Over the years, community surveys have shown consistent support for the RiverWalk project. A town survey conducted in 2018 indicated 97% approval.
Taking the baton
Bourn, who grew up in the valley and was an outdoor recreation major in college, said in an interview this week that she was inspired to initiate action on the RiverWalk project by mentors such as John Hayes and the late Larry Miller, and motivated by a Methow Valley News article about council members’ doubts that the project could ever happen.
“A light bulb went on, and I was called to take it on,” she said. She met with neighbor Curtis Edwards, who spent several years working on the RiverWalk plan. Edwards shared information he had accumulated and “handed me the baton,” Bourn said.
Bourn started contacting friends — what she called a “random mishmash of people” including Casey Bouchard, Julie Palm, Ina Clark and Diane Childs — who became the core of the informal RiverWalk group, along with Kenny. Bourn said Winthrop Town Planner Rocklynn Culp dubbed them the “group of champions” for the RiverWalk. “It took off with a bang after that,” Bourn said.
She said the group at first contacted property owners between the Spring Creek Bridge and Confluence Park, where they found pretty much unanimous support, before continuing to move upriver. “We just put our feet on the ground,” she said.
Bourn said the “champions” group may have resonated with business owners because “it was a little more like it would be their decision … the thing we kept hearing over and over is about the lack of communication and trust” with the town.
“People just want to be listened to,” Bourn said.
Bourn, who described herself as “just part of a big team,” said she is “feeling really positive” about moving forward with the group’s work. “I feel like we have their [the Town Council’s] support,” she said.
Bourn said he accepts that it will be a long-term effort to bring RiverWalk to fruition, but “I do see it happening.”
“I have a deep, deep love for this town and community … I have a vision for its future,” Bourn said.