After years of budget cutting, new financial resources put fresh life into long-term park expansion, fundingWith two state grants in hand, Clatsop County is moving forward on a plan to build a walking trail and wildlife viewing platform at Cullaby Lake Park.

It's a modest project, but a milestone all the same for the county parks system, which just a few years ago was struggling with shrinking funding and uncertain direction from the county and was turning away grants for new construction.

The biggest boost is the almost $700,000 windfall from the county's sale of its Sunset Beach property to the Oregon State Parks and Recreation Department last year. The county commissioners directed that the proceeds from the sale be dedicated to the parks system.

With those dollars, county officials and a citizen advisory committee are looking down the road for new, bigger projects that will expand existing parks and create new facilities that can generate more income for the 20-park county system.

The Cullaby Lake trail project involves extending an informal walking trail into a 1.5-mile loop between the county park and an abandoned nearby race track, following old roads and a railroad right-of-way, according to Parks Foreman Steve Meshke.

The parks department currently mows the trail, which is now used mostly by local residents, but the project will add gravel to the surface, elevate a swampy stretch, and add interpretive signs. The elevated, handicapped-accessible viewing platform will give trail users a look at some surrounding wetlands and birds that use the area, Meshke said.

The county is waiting for a final permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the installation of a culvert.

Boosted by grantThe project is made possible by an $18,353 Local Government Grant, provided earlier this month by the Oregon Parks Commission, and a $7,706 allocation from the Department of Land Conservation and Development. The county will provide money from its Special Projects fund and another state grant to cover the rest of the project's $36,000 cost. Adult and juvenile work crews will help build the trail.

It's a new direction for the county, which once turned away grants for new park projects because of a lack of funding to maintain them. The county's 20 park facilities, totaling 1,300 acres in picnic and campgrounds, beach access points, boat ramps and other attractions, have suffered in recent years from uncertain funding and staffing levels that have made it difficult to do much more than just perform the most basic maintenance tasks.

Now the county, with the Recreational Lands Planning Advisory Committee, hopes to craft a long-term funding plan for the parks system, and to that end is dusting off a six-year-old study on a proposed campground at Cullaby Lake and pursuing the acquisition of property from Georgia-Pacific at the Westport boat landing for the possible development of another revenue-generating facility.

"We're getting good support from the county," said Carolyn Eady, vice-chairwoman of the advisory committee. "It's just a matter of working through the process."

Eady was on the committee several years ago when "things were pretty down" and the parks system struggled with a lack of funding. The new focus the county is giving to parks lured her back to the panel, she said.

In 1997, the county commissioners cut off funding from the general fund, forcing the parks system to rely on its $263,000 capital projects fund for maintenance and other operational expenses. After the fund was exhausted three years later, the county supplemented the budget with a $64,000 general fund allocation, but did not put in place any permanent funding system.

Along with the funding cut, the commissioners, worried that new projects could burden the county with more financial obligations, also put limits on the number of grants that could be pursued.

More recently, as part of a series of cuts made to the 2002-03 budget, the commissioners trimmed the park ranger position to half-time and eliminated a part-time supervisor.

ParkThat left many of the facilities "in limbo for six months with no one paying attention to them," Meshke said.

A retired 20-year Coast Guard veteran whose assignments included the cutter Steadfast, Meshke came into the park foreman job last year as a fill-in for part-time foreman Harry Johns after Johns was called up for military duty. In May his position was made full-time.

Meshke handles the daily maintenance needs and repairs at each of the 20 county park facilities, with help from a second maintenance person between May and September. He also coordinates the work of groups like Scouts, high school students and jail work crews that perform maintenance and repairs, and pursues grants like those that will fund the Cullaby Lake trail project.

"Having a full-time person is just essential," Eady said.

Best useToday the department's $154,000 budget is supported by $48,000 in general fund dollars and $38,000 from the Sunset Beach sale proceeds. The rest comes from park fees, and some money from the Oregon State Marine Board.

The committee is still wrestling with the best use for the Sunset Beach money, but the members want it to be kept for capital projects and not spent on operations, Eady said.

The biggest project under consideration is the proposed campground at Cullaby Lake, an idea the county has considered for several years. A 1998 study found that a campground, depending on the type and design, could generate almost a quarter-million dollars in revenue. But newer, more restrictive wastewater rules and new access issues will need to be addressed as part of any new look, said Assistant County Administrator Deb Kraske.

"It would have to do more than pay for itself to meet the goal of a long-term funding source," she said.

Staff and the Rec Lands committee hope to have a recommendation on the campground proposal, as well as on other projects and long-term funding solutions, for consideration by the county commissioners by next spring, Kraske said.

"We feel like we're on a positive note, and we want to keep the momentum going," she said.

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