Short of busking on the street corner with an upturned hat to collect spare change, Ruth Williamson is doing just about everything she can to ensure that the public secures the last major piece of undeveloped real estate along the Deschutes River in Bend, a nearly five-acre parcel just downstream from the Colorado dam.
As a park board member, Williamson has helped earmark nearly three quarters of a million dollars in public funding for the acquisition of the property known as Miller's Landing. Now Williamson is working with the park district's major partner on the project, the Trust for Public Land (TPL), to complete the purchase of the Miller Landing site before a Dec. 31 deadline.
An active community member, Williamson said she is motivated in large part by her belief that the public has a once in a lifetime opportunity to preserve a unique piece of land for future generations. To do that, the community will have to come up with roughly $400,000 toward the $1.8 million sale price. Williamson said she believes the community can and will do it, if they know the Miller's Landing story and grasp the opportunity that has been presented by the property owners, which include the Miller Family and Brooks Resources.
"People come out to this property and they get excited. They say, "Of course this needs to be a park. How could it not be," Williamson said on a recent tour of the property.
But just a few years ago, it looked as though the community wouldn't have the chance to preserve what had become a de facto park. After years of allowing open public access to the former lumber distribution site, the Miller family decided that the time was ripe to develop the property. The family, led by Charley Miller, partnered with Brooks Resources at the height of the real estate boom on a proposal for a relatively dense riverfront condominium development. Although the project preserved some public river access, it wasn't particularly well received by neighbors. But it was the economy, not public opinion, that led Miller and Brooks to shelve their plans, according to Miller. In the meantime, the Trust for Public Land was just starting work on its community Greenprint, a roadmap of sorts for how the community could identify and preserve high value open spaces. Brooks Resources was one of the initial stakeholders in this process and quickly realized that the Miller's Landing site met several of the top criteria for lands that were being identified in the Greenprint, including river access and the potential for trail connectivity.
By September of last year the TPL and Millbrook, as the Brooks-Miller family partnership is formally known, had started to hammer out the basics of a sale. Since then, the parks department has promised $750,000 toward the Miller's Landing acquisition, Trust for Public Lands has committed another $250,000 and Oregon State Parks pledged $250,000 as well. Other donations have closed the fundraising gap to $400,000 that must be raised locally before the end of the year. The challenge now is how to raise that kind of money in the midst of a recession that has hit particularly hard in Central Oregon. However, conservationists like Williamson and the Trust for Public Lands Project Manager Kristin Kovalik acknowledge that opportunities like the one at Miller's Landing are only available because of the economic downturn; call it the silver lining in the bubble that burst so spectacularly. TPL and Williamson aren't the only ones wrestling with how to make the most of a fleeting, yet golden, opportunity. The Deschutes Land Trust is also beating the drum publicly for support on another seemingly once in a lifetime conservation deal, this one along Whychus Creek outside of Sisters. So far the Land Trust has secured almost $2.5 million in funding for the acquisition of a 440-acre property that includes two miles of riverbank along the creek. The area is considered to be prime habitat to newly re-introduced steelhead and salmon above Lake Billy Chinook and includes a large piece of upland habitat that the organization's conservation director Brad Nye describes as pristine condition.
Like TPL, the Deschtues Land Trust needs to raise another $400,000 locally to secure the purchase before the end of the year when the landowner's offer expires. While that amount represents a significant challenge to the organization that has pared back its staff hours in the past year due to a dearth of donations, Nye said he believes that it is within the Land Trust's reach. That's something he acknowledges would not have been realistic a few years ago because the real estate values had put desirable properties like Whychus Canyon out of reach. The recession has changed all that.
"With Whychus Canyon, several years ago it was completely unreachable in terms of our fundraising capacity and now it's in the realm of doable. And that's made a huge difference. It's sort of turned dream into reality," Nye said.
But it's a reality that still has to contend with a stubborn recession that will pose a challenge to even the most capable fundraiser. Still both Williamson and Nye remain optimistic that their neighbors will come through in the clutch. Williamson points out that a recent weed pull event at Miller attracted almost 60 people. Williamson then stops to pull out a few clumps of knap weed that the volunteers missed. To Williamson, the turnout is evidence that the community has a special affinity for Miller's Landing and one that extends all the way to our collective pocketbook.