If you build it
Community-led efforts have turned a controversial property into a new park
As each of more than a dozen people walked, jogged, biked and roller-bladed across the new bridge spanning Comanche Creek during the noon hour on Tuesday (July 19), a trio of women standing farther down the paved bike path giggled and exchanged satisfied smiles.
“Look at everyone using it,” Janet Ellner exclaimed to her companions, Emily Alma and Liz Stewart. “It’s not even open yet and people have already found it and they’re using it.”
For the women, watching the public use the bike path and other nearby trails to travel from Otterson Drive to Meyers Street, or to explore the creekside in the half-mile swath of city-owned semi-wilderness west of the Midway, is the result of years of hard work. Ellner, Alma and Stewart are members of Friends of the Comanche Creek Greenway and have worked with that organization and other groups for years to develop the 20-acre area into a park, complete with paved and unpaved biking and hiking trails, picnic areas, lighting, benches, a parking lot and more.
The first and largest segment of the project is complete, and will officially open with a ribbon-cutting hosted by the city of Chico and Friends of the Comanche Creek Greenway on Friday (July 22).
There is still work to be done, however, according to the Comanche Creek Greenway Improvement Project adopted by the city in 2012, with further improvements to be completed incrementally as funding permits. Upcoming plans include interpretive signs marking historic and natural points of interest.
“This area is home to animals, lots of native habitat, oak woodlands … there’s a lot here, and we’re happy people will be able to enjoy it now,” Ellner said.
“It’s a beautiful natural area that adds greatly to the aesthetic value of the city,” Shane Romain, park services coordinator, said by phone. “Additionally, it’s a great addition from a transportation standpoint, because it connects the business park to neighborhoods and makes it much easier and safer for a lot of people to walk and bike to work.”
Friday’s ceremony marks the end of the debate over the use of the property, which is largely surrounded by industrial development. To the west is the collective agricultural community Riparia, where Alma has lived since 1987.
The area first became the subject of controversy in 2000, when the City Council approved an extension from Otterson Drive to cut through the property to connect the Hegan Lane Business Park to South Park Avenue. A contingent of environmentally minded citizens, including Alma and Ellner, helped organize and gather signatures for a referendum, and voters shut down the project during a special election held in 2001.
A few years later, the Southwest Chico Neighborhood Creeks, Parks and Open Space Action Group was formed and eventually helped create improvement and management plans for the greenway adopted by the city in 2012. That group became the Friends of the Comanche Creek Greenway.
The city initially owned 5 acres along the creek. In 2006, the City Council approved the purchase of 15 adjacent acres with $1.25 million in redevelopment funds. The intention was to turn the property into a low-impact park. However, the area was fenced off and quickly became a haven for the city’s homeless population. Lacking a plan to develop the park, the property sat in limbo for years, its future made more uncertain when the state dissolved redevelopment agencies in early 2012.
Members of the group have been holding volunteer work days to clean up trash from homeless encampments and remove invasive plant species twice monthly for several years (Stewart joined the group in this capacity in 2008), as well as regular meetings with city staff to move the project forward.
In late 2013, the Friends of the Comanche Creek Greenway found funding in the form of a noncompetitive Housing Related Parks Grant from the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development, and $1.03 million in grant money was awarded to the city for the project in July 2014. That money didn’t become available until last summer, and work on the bridge and other improvements was carried out at a brisk pace through last winter to meet the grant’s June deadline.
“After waiting so long, it was a flurry of activity,” Stewart said. “There were a lot of factors involved in building the bridge … even the temperature and weather had to be right. Everything came together so fast.”
Friends of the Comanche Creek Greenway have additionally pledged to contribute $17,000 for each of the next three years for park maintenance and patrol. Alma said funding for the first year has already been raised through contributions from community members as well as several businesses in the Hegan Lane Business Park. The group also has pledges to cover some of those costs in upcoming years, but both the community group and city officials said they continue to seek additional grant funding for improvements and upkeep.
“I’m positive the project wouldn’t have moved along at the rate it did, or at all, if it wasn’t for community involvement and the Friends of the [Comanche Creek] Greenway,” Romain said. “The way things are nowadays, it’s really hard for any one agency or organization to go it alone on any project, so partnerships like this are essential.”