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When Washington State closed the only public access park and boating facility for a 50-mile stretch along the Columbia River, a group of growers spearheaded efforts to reopen the park. Three years later, the nonprofit group is working to bring the park under county auspices and develop a master plan for its continuance.

Crow Butte Park, near Paterson, Washington, was one of several parks closed in the fall of 2002 due to state budget shortfalls. The U.S. Corps of Engineers originally built the 1,300-acre park, with freshwater shoreline and swimming beach, boat basin and docks, and 50 full-hookup camping sites, in the late 1970s.

Crow Butte, once a hill named after the homesteading Crow family, became an island after the corps built the John Day Dam and flooded the Columbia River. The park is one of many stops on the Lewis and Clark Trail.

“It was state run for about 25 years, but the state did zero for capital improvements,” said Bob Brown, park manager since Crow Butte’s reopening in August 2003. “It probably cost the federal government around $20 million to build in the 1970s. The corps didn’t want to run it, and the state didn’t want to run it. After the Indian tribes declined to run it, it was then up to a public group to save it.”

A community group petitioned the state to reopen the park, but to no avail.

“The only way to open it was to form an entity,” said Brown.

That’s when six area farming companies and several individual growers came to the rescue. Alder Ridge Vineyards, Champoux Vineyards, Pioneer Hay, Paterson Onion, Inc., Mercer Canyon, Inc., Sandpiper Farms, and vineyardists like Mimi Nye and Doug Gore, worked together to create the Crow Butte Park Association, a nonprofit group that negotiated a contract with the corps to run the park.

Brown, former vineyard manager at Canoe Ridge Vineyard and private consultant for vineyards in the Walla Walla Valley, was hired by the park association’s board of directors to help run and manage the park.

The local farmers have been very supportive in providing labor and equipment needed for park maintenance, he noted.

“It’s a community service deal,” said Brown in describing his transition from viticulture to park management.

In the last year, the park generated $90,000 from usage revenue and fund raising activities, according to Brown. But it costs around $120,000 to keep it open, and that’s without any capital improvements.

“We are looking to turn the nonprofit group into some type of government entity like a park district or part of a county municipality because unless you are a municipality, you don’t qualify for grants that are available for economic development, capital improvements, maintenance, or acquisition.”

The park association is working with Benton County to find another way to keep it running. The group is seeking $35,000 in county funds to develop a master plan for the park, addressing a permanent governing body, longevity of the park, and capital improvements.

Community center

The goal of the park association is to turn Crow Butte Park into a centerpiece for annual community events as well as a destination for visitors in the area. It is a natural fit as a venue promoting the vineyards and wineries of Horse Heaven Hills, the local wine appellation, Brown added.

“Our message is that rural America is losing a lot of these kinds of things and places,” he said, explaining that the park is centrally located to serve as a community center where local events and activities are held.

“It’s somewhat similar to the grange centers that were once popular in the 1950s, but are now disappearing. Rural areas are losing their community centers and structures.”