Next step for River West: Where does the money for upkeep come from?

San Joaquin River Conservancy Board meeting on river access

San Joaquin River Conservancy Board meets in Clovis to vote on access to River West Open Space Area on Wednesday morning, Dec. 13, 2017.
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San Joaquin River Conservancy Board meets in Clovis to vote on access to River West Open Space Area on Wednesday morning, Dec. 13, 2017.

Let’s begin by restating the good news: We as a community are finally past the point of arguing over how to access the River West Open Space Area.

Which means now’s time to address the elephant in the room, one that largely faded into the background during the years of rancor over Fresno’s most tantalizing and unrealized public land.

No trails, parking lots, bathrooms, drinking fountains, picnic areas or improved fishing access – all those amenities Fresno residents want and so woefully lack compared to cities like Sacramento and Bakersfield – can be built at River West until long-term funding for operations and maintenance of such facilities can be secured. How long? Twenty-five years.

This stipulation applies not only at River West, 508 acres of riverbottom adjacent to Highway 41 in the northern outskirts of town, but also the entire San Joaquin River Parkway, the long-envisioned 22-mile system of trails and river access stretching from Friant Dam to Highway 99.

While the state of California, though voter-approved bond measures, is willing to assemble the parkway by purchasing properties along the river and developing them with trails and other facilities, the task of keeping them clean and functioning falls to the local jurisdictions.

Unfortunately, making that compute isn’t as simple as it might sound.

Exhibit A: The restroom at Jensen River Ranch below Woodward Park, closed since 2014, a situation I wrote about last summer. Why closed? Because the San Joaquin River Conservancy, the property owner, and the City of Fresno don’t agree over who’s responsible for its upkeep.

We can’t afford to let a similar pitfall stymie River West, delaying public access to this prime area any longer than what we’ve already endured.

The first step in solving the operation and maintenance puzzle took place Wednesday in a meeting between the major stakeholders.

The first step in solving the operation and maintenance puzzle took place Wednesday in a meeting between the major stakeholders and, hopefully, partners. Those present included Melinda Marks, executive director of the San Joaquin River Conservancy; Bruce Rudd, Fresno’s assistant city manager; Sharon Weaver of the San Joaquin River Parkway and Conservation Trust; and members of the neighborhood group who are proud owners of what will eventually be an 11-acre parking lot, as approved by the San Joaquin River Conservancy Board in December.

No decisions were made about River West. The most encouraging news came in the form of an olive branch extended from the city to the nonprofit parkway trust, staunch adversaries during the recent brouhaha. (More on that in a bit.)

The purpose of the meeting was to begin the process of determining the “level of services” required. Would there be an actual person collecting parking fees for cars? How often would the bathrooms and picnic areas need to be cleaned? What regular fire prevention measures must take place? How much police or security presence will be needed?

A fisherman tries his luck in a pond located inside the River West Open Space Area in the northern outskirts of Fresno on Friday, June 30, 2017. CRAIG KOHLRUSS

Answers to these questions, and others, will determine the annual costs for operations and maintenance. Marks did not want to give me a figure, only that it would be “under $100,000.”

Where will that money come from? Marks believes the City of Fresno should be responsible for the lion’s share. City crews already maintain the existing portion of the Lewis S. Eaton Trail north of Woodward Park, which was recently repaved. A 2.4-mile extension of the Eaton Trail is one of River West’s primary features.

“To me, it’s always been part of the (Fresno) parks system, just like anything within the city limits,” Marks said. “The city badly, badly needs more parks space and more recreation, and this is the least-cost kind of facilities that they can provide: trails in open-space areas.”

Statewide, taxpayers are providing a huge benefit to Fresno and Madera to help build the parkway. Now those communities need to step up to the plate in order to operate and maintain it.

Melinda Marks, San Joaquin Conservancy executive director

Rudd, who used to run Fresno’s parks department, doesn’t agree City Hall should pick up the tab. Nor can it. The city’s $15 million parks budget (including staffing) is stretched so thin, he points out, that a recent report suggested it should be spending double that to properly maintain the assets it already has.

So there isn’t an extra pail of money lying around for River West. Especially when there is such a need in other parts of town.

“We’re trying to come up with $100,000 to $150,000 to replace the bathrooms at Cary Park (in central Fresno) that are in third-world condition,” Rudd said.

However, some of the burden does fall on the city. Mayor Lee Brand pledged his support and cooperation for River West while advocating for the Palm and Nees access point over over the alternative through the Bluffs neighborhood. And prior to last month’s conservancy board vote, Rudd himself made it abundantly clear what would happen (i.e. little to no cooperation) if they didn’t capitulate.

Now that City Hall got its way, there’s no walking away from the process.

Fortunately, that doesn’t appear to be taking place. Rudd reiterated Brand’s “commitment” to seeing River West come to fruition and said the city will “participate” in securing long-term O&M funds.

One short-term avenue is Measure C, the Fresno County transportation tax, which was recently amended to allow for trails upkeep provided the public entity using the money can provide five times the matching funds for the cost of trail construction. There’s also a cap of $50,000 per mile of trail over five years.

In other words, if Fresno wants $50,000 in O&M money paid through Measure C, it needs to find $250,000 from other funding sources to build those trails.

That shouldn’t be a problem at River West, since the San Joaquin River Conservancy has nearly $30 million in state bonds available for the parkway.

To reduce overhead, the city also could partner with a local nonprofit to provide staffing and upkeep for River West – something that has been tried at other Fresno parks to various degrees of success.

Perhaps the most encouraging sign to come out of Wednesday’s meeting was the city’s apparent willingness to partner with the parkway trust, which already operates Sycamore Island Park and Camp Pashayan in addition to the Coke Hallowell Center for River Studies.

Weaver, the parkway trust’s executive director, was a little surprised by Rudd’s olive branch, which follows several years of contentious debate. She indicated the nonprofit, which formed in 1988 to create the parkway and save riverbottom areas from development, would be “interested in partnering with the different agencies involved.”

“I’m very hopeful,” Weaver said. “I think right now we have a lot of people talking very seriously about how to move forward and make this happen.”

At some point, the conversation must shift to how to fund O&M for the entire 22-mile parkway, as opposed to certain segments like River West. That’ll be the subject of a future column.

For now, though, any hint of progress is a positive step.

Marek Warszawski: 559-441-6218, @MarekTheBee