Vail Daily column: River parks create sense of community
February 12, 2016
It's easy to get distracted by the economics of the Eagle River Corridor Plan recently proposed by the town of Eagle. Easier still to confuse the intangibles and the unknowns while speculating over the presumed price of enhancing the river and gateway to the community that shares its name.
But while the inspired plan to renovate the dilapidated dirt parking area currently seen at the entrance to Eagle into an inviting park along the banks of our namesake river is often considered in terms of cost, its worth is best measured in terms of community.
First, a bit of background. The town's Eagle River Corridor Plan has been a work in progress for several years, the town staff and Board of Trustees collaborating with the engineering and design team at Lyons-based S2O Designs, habitat experts at Colorado Parks and Wildlife and, most recently, a panel of community consultants from other Colorado towns that have created thriving river parks of their own.
Eagle's comprehensive proposal ultimately spans some three-and-a-half miles of riverfront, Phase 1 beginning with about an 850-foot river segment connecting roughly 6 acres of property west of Chambers Park and east of the Eagle County Fairgrounds. The plan incorporates in-stream features, beaches, trails and green space where the river is currently fenced off and virtually inaccessible to residents and visitors alike.
That the town long ago turned its back on the Eagle River is undeniable. As it stands, it is not a welcoming place.
Sadly, it's a story told all too often in Colorado, where railroads, mining and industry at large frequently led to once majestic rivers being treated as second-class citizens, never really integrated into the communities that grew up around them. Outside of Eagle, evidence of the era remains in the channelized ditches just upstream of the recently reconstructed river through Minturn, even more on the Arkansas River just beyond historic Camp Hale and Tennessee Pass.
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But on that side of the Divide, citizens such as Mike Harvey, Ray Kitson and Jed Selby have taken it upon themselves to improve the landscape and transform their local river into a community-defining amenity for their respective towns of Salida and Buena Vista.
"In Salida it was really a matter of turning the town from having the river being out our back door to having the river be out our front door," Harvey told an eager audience recently gathered to learn more about the potential for Eagle's proposal. "What has really happened over the past 15 years is that the river has become sort of a town beach and a town gathering place. The Arkansas River has become a focal point for our community."
And therein lies the true, tangible byproduct of the proposed river park in Eagle. Beyond the reality that similar parks in similar places such as Salida and Buena Vista are established economic drivers, the fact is they are proven community creators. And that's what this place really need most.
"A project like this really draws everyone together," said Kitson, who co-founded the Arkansas River Trust with Harvey some 16 years ago in Salida. "I think it really unites a town. It certainly has in Salida and I strongly suspect it would here as well."
Like so many mountain communities in Colorado, the Eagle Valley has long been defined by its transience. Short-term seasonal locals aside, even those who have put down roots can be challenged by the prospect of enticing the next generation to continue to call this place home.
For a town like Eagle, where many more committed residents look to settle into a family lifestyle, the well-planned river park before us offers the opportunity to establish not just community, but heritage through "place-making." As Salida's Kitson put it, "I wanted to build a place that my daughter wanted to move back to." And he did.
"Eighty percent of the use is not elite-recreation, people pursuing kayaking and things like that. It's really people enjoying the banks, walking along the river, hanging out, wading, kids swimming," said Harvey, whose Badfish stand-up paddle board company was born on the local riverbank. "These river parks are more than water parks. They are magnets for people."
While working as an outdoor sports writer for 20 years at The Denver Post, I've witnessed firsthand the origin and continued rise of these river parks throughout the West. From Golden to Durango and dozens of places in between, what were initially branded "whitewater parks" have more recently become recognized for what they really are: Community parks on the river. Eagle, if you'll pardon the pun, is missing the boat.
"Eagle and Buena Vista share a lot of similarities, but I think that really the driving force for a town like ours is when you take an amenity and do something awesome with it, then you become a destination," said Ken Cook, a 15-year Edwards resident enticed into relocating to the South Main community designed by Selby around the Buena Vista River Park. "I can't think of a better thing for Eagle than this river park."
Much like Eagle's growing network of mountain biking trails has begun to attract a new generation of active outdoor lovers, the Eagle River Corridor Plan offers an unprecedented opportunity to gather and establish a community united in appreciation for a long-overlooked amenity. The formula has been proven time and again.
"(Clear Creek Park) has really become the heart and soul of Golden. There isn't a person in our community that doesn't have a connection to the creek in some form or in some fashion," Rod Tarullo, director of Parks and Recreation for the City of Golden, told the Eagle townspeople. "It's just a wonderful, wonderful amenity to our community. It is really our identity."
Kitson paints a similar, if slightly more poetic, picture.
"You can have a beautiful ski area and beautiful mountains and beautiful everything. But nothing beats a river," he said. "And if you can take a community like yours, combine the view and the water, and you've got something that just can't be beat. Water is magic."
Scott Willoughby is the former outdoors editor for The Denver Post. He lives in Eagle.
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