In a world where so much human energy is expended tearing things down, let’s celebrate that we live in a community where people expend their energy building things up.
This time, I’m not talking about software but civic hardware: Winthrop’s new fire station and public library, and the Twisp Civic Building.
Remarkably, all these improbable, multi-million dollar amenities were unveiled in our small rural valley over the last five months.
Frankly, these ambitious projects — lacking funding and sometimes public support — called to mind disheartening visions of Sisyphus, doomed to repeatedly push a massive boulder back uphill, never to reach the mountaintop.
I stand corrected. And so, I hope, do the critics.
The Winthrop fire station’s story began, badly, 14 years ago. The Okanogan County Fire District 6 commissioners knew they could no longer safely operate from the cramped old building on Englar Street in Winthrop.
Long story short, they put money down on a parcel of land near the Winthrop post office. However, the town council had other ideas about the best use of that land; it wouldn’t issue a building permit. The public wasn’t on board, either. Voters twice turned down tax levies to build a new fire station.
Then came the game-changer: the raging 2014 Carlton Complex Fire. We awakened to our shocking vulnerability to massive firestorms.
The evening Pateros burned, Fire District 6’s visibly shaken fire chief, the late Don Waller, said that he’d never seen such a “monster” in 40 years of firefighting. The soil and grass were so dry, said Waller, “that a cricket rubbing its legs together could start a fire.”
Subsequent fire seasons underscored the need for a functional fire station. Still, even after the 300-square-mile fire district finally obtained 70% voter approval to build and acquired land on Horizon Flat to do it, the project stalled. Too costly, the station repeatedly had to be scaled down. Yet fire officials soldiered on.
Belatedly, a public advisory panel had been appointed to get voters on board. During that panel’s review of one stripped-down version of a building plan, Andy Hover, not yet a county commissioner, scrutinized the plan and asked: “Where’s the women’s restroom?”
Hello? Awkward silence.
The new firehouse has a women’s restroom — and a great deal more. This is a facility equal to its task.
Plus, a big bonus: Thanks to a $1.8 million grant from the Bruno and Evelyne Betti Foundation, this $5.4 million station is fit and funded to train certified professional firefighters. Taxpayers paid $4.4 million of its cost.
A facility that helps us live here more safely, it also shows our firefighters — who volunteer to risk their lives for the rest of us — that this community values their safety and honors their sacrifice of time and effort to protect us.
It’s a civic pride thing, you might say.
And it’s a memorial. At the opening celebration, Fire Commissioner Darold Brandenburg announced that a portion of Don Waller’s ashes rest in the wall mortar over the entrance to the engine bay.
Sticking with it
Birthing the impressive Twisp Civic Building and Emergency Operations Center required only 10 years of labor pains. Setbacks, carping and controversy dogged the project.
The cement block walls of the 70-year-old town hall threatened to collapse. Toxic fumes wafted into the clerk’s office from the town’s adjoining vehicle maintenance shop. Public records could not be safely secured. There was hardly any space for citizens to attend their own town council meetings. Which may be why they didn’t.
The town lacked money to correct this untenable situation. So Mayor Soo Ing-Moody and the council set about to find it from state and federal sources. Dishearteningly, bids repeatedly were too high. Less determined souls might have given up. Not this crew.
Last month, residents of Twisp got their first look at their new $4.9 million civic center. They have reason to be proud. This is another far-sighted, state-of the-art public facility built to do double duty.
It’s a welcoming town hall where citizens can gather to participate in governing themselves as well as a public emergency communications/command center — another lesson, and legacy, of the 2014 firestorm.
Methow Valley News Twisp columnist Sarah Schrock aptly wrote: “Civic duty means participating in a civil society … participating in the life of a community beyond personal gain …Twisp is now well-poised to offer a safe and reliable place to support civic life.”
The handsome new Winthrop library replaces a tiny makeshift space with a flood-prone basement. Shannon Polson and Friends of the Winthrop Public Library set in motion the enthusiastic community effort that, comparatively, saw this building quickly completed.
One thousand private donors, large and small, paid most of the cost of this $6.5 million library, which upon completion was donated to the town. Thanks to our then-12th District Republican lawmakers, the Legislature provided $2 million of that cost.
Again, an unexpected byproduct: Seeing what Winthrop was doing to turn its library into a multi-purpose community amenity, the Legislature also established a $15 million fund to help other small towns do the same.
I’m thankful for these forward-looking, attractive, well-built civic structures because I believe they strengthen our community.
I’m even more thankful for the individuals — all those un-named, stubborn, heavy-lifting community builders — who had not just the vision but the tenacity to get these excellent public amenities built.
Solveig Torvik lives near Winthrop.