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Who will be a friend to Friends Landing?

Dave Hamilton said he got the idea for a place where anyone, regardless of ability or disability, could access the water after seeing a wheel chair-bound friend struggle fishing.

His friend had lost his legs in Vietnam.

“By God, the least we could do was find a place where he could fish,” said Hamilton, a fishing enthusiast, who lives on the banks of the Chehalis River in Central Park.

Hamilton connected with the late Bob Bush, who owned Bayview Lumber Co., and was sympathetic to the need for a better water access point for persons with disabilities. When Bush was 18 years old, he saved the lives of many of his comrades at the Battle of Okinawa and earned the Medal of Honor. Bush had many of his own friends in a similar plight, who wanted better access to the river to fish, and connected Hamilton with John Friend, who owned a gravel pit near the Chehalis River.

“I had never spoken to Friend in my entire life, but the connections were there,” Hamilton said.

Soon, Chuck Caldwell and his brother George got involved, spearheading fundraising efforts and getting volunteers and Jim Walls with Columbia Pacific RC&D set about finding grant funds.

“We had nearly every construction company on the Harbor involved,” Caldwell said. “It was really amazing what we were able to do.”

The rest, as they say, is history. By the late 1980s, Friends Landing, a world class 152-acre site on the banks of the Chehalis River geared toward handicap accessible recreation opportunities, was born. Located off Katon Road near Montesano, the facility has won national and state honors as an “obstacle-free” park, designed so that anyone can enjoy it, regardless of physical handicaps. Caldwell says it was the first of its kind in the nation and inspired others around the country to see how they were able to do it.

Caldwell, a port commissioner today, has been the primary point person for Friends Landing for the past couple of decades.

Most of the 27 original founders of Friends Landing — whose names are engraved on a stone near one of the park’s picnic areas — have retired, gotten older, died or are no longer involved with the park. In March, Chuck’s brother George died.

“George loved to fish,” Caldwell said. “He had his own physical challenges and we always struggled to find someplace to go before Friends Landing. After, he would fish there off the dock all the time.”

Caldwell said he’s wanted to find a new team to take charge of Friends Landing for years — but he’s struggled finding any takers.

That led him to what he knew: Going to the Port of Grays Harbor to see if there was any interest in the facility.

Last month, Port Commissioner Stan Pinnick requested staff to investigate the properties, review amenities and improvements associated with the sites, analyze the financial implications of the property transfer, and report back to the Commissioners at their meeting. The presentation is expected to happen at the Port’s meeting at 9 a.m., Tuesday, May 13 in their chambers in Aberdeen.

Except to answer questions, Caldwell says he plans to stay on the sidelines on this one because of the obvious conflict of interest.

“The Commissioners and staff are honored that the stewards of these vital waterfront facilities feel the Port of Grays Harbor would be best suited for the long-term management and preservation of these waterfront assets,” stated Port Executive Director Gary Nelson said in a press release. “The recreational opportunities provided by these sites align well with the Port’s mission of providing public access to our waterfront and promoting tourism for the betterment of the region. My initial thought is they complement our holdings at Satsop Business Park, but like every opportunity that presents itself to the Port, we will carefully analyze how these properties might fit with our mission and our business objectives.”

In 2008, Caldwell and fellow Friends Landing founder Jon Lewis approached the Grays Harbor County commissioners to see if they had any interest in taking over the facility. Then-county commissioner Al Carter had staff look at the options and the county was seriously interesting in adding the facility to its recreational holdings, which includes Vance Creek Park near Elma, a campground near the Elk River Bridge and the Straddleline Offroad Vehicle Park, east of McCleary. There was talk of utilizing a tourism tax fund known as the “Stadium Fund” to add new amenities to Friends Landing and work on the upkeep.

But hard budget times hit — and within a year of the proposal, the county was laying off staff and slashing its budget. The plan for Friends Landing was shelved. At this point, there’s a whole new set of three county commissioners compared to who was in office in 2008.

“Our guts sank,” Caldwell said. “We weren’t sure what to do.”

Six years later, there’s still a need for someone to take over the park. Caldwell said he felt odd going to the port with the idea — and he’s grateful Commission Chairman Pinnick had decided it’s worth at least talking about.

Caldwell says the Port has tasked Satsop Business Manager Alissa Shay to look into the options, including the potential maintenance costs.

“I think it’d be a real marriage in heaven for the Port,” Hamilton said. “They’d look real good by taking it over — and respecting the legacy of those who built it from the ground up. It has so much potential. It’s a great place. Now, we just need to figure out a way to get more fish upstream so people can use it more.”

Caldwell says the park has been paying for itself for years now.

“It costs us about $5,000 a year to keep it open out of pocket,” Caldwell said.”But you never know what could happen. You may need to fix the sewer system one day. You’ve got to pay power, wells. We haven’t had any major problems except in 1996, when a flood washed out one end of the bridge at the slough — and that was covered by FEMA insurance.”

The facility also has a reserve fund, which has been draining lately mainly paying another $5,000 to $6,000 or so in taxes, Caldwell said. If the Port were to take the property over, the tax bill would go away because local governments don’t pay property taxes on facilities or land. That means the $5,000 or so the facility takes in — mainly from the 18 RV hook ups and 10 camp sites at the property — would pay for itself, Caldwell said.

A history on the facility posted at gofriendslanding.com notes the Friend family donated 152 acres, previously an old gravel pit, with one-mile of Chehalis River frontage, to Trout Unlimited in 1988. Dredging for gravel had already produced a 32-acre, man-made lake, Lake Quigg, with a variety of fish.

The community came together in three phases. First the volunteers built a fishing pier on the Chehalis River with a boat launch, two fishing shelters, a picnic shelter, a parking lot and quarters for a caretaker. They then built a paved path south of the lake in the second phase along with viewing docks and piers. They erected a handicap accessible ramp and float on the river, along with a boat launch, an extended parking lot and landscaping.

In 1999, the final phase was completed with a paved pathway circling the lake, restrooms with showers, recreational vehicle and tent-camping facilities, paving and accessible playground equipment. There’s also 1.7 miles of level trail through a wetland area with interpretive signs.

“That’s the best place to walk in this area,” Caldwell said. “In the evening, it is really beautiful. If I want somewhere to just walk, I’ll just walk. Starting Memorial Day weekend, there’s at least a hundred walkers a day if not more. And, during weekends, it’s more than that. I think about how that area was just a big pile of ugly rock and what it’s become today and I can’t help but smile. They said it would cost $1.8 million to build it. Well, we did it for half of that — and all volunteers.”

Besides Friends Landing, the Port is also looking to take over a site named for outdoor enthusiast Jay Sterling on the banks of the Wynooche River, outside of Montesano. Sterling, a Boeing retiree, bought the site shortly before his death in 2008 with the hopes that it would one day be transformed into a place that would connect the public with the riverfront. He was scared that someone else would buy it and restrict access — so he donated the land to Friends Landing to secure its future.

A Port press release states Sterling Landing sits in 30 acres, but a Daily World story at the time of the donation state it’s 36 acres.

Caldwell said the intention has always been to develop the site, there’s just never been any money to do it. Things are different these days, compared to when Friends Landing was built, Caldwell said. The area is mainly gravel — with many bumps and holes, although there is a natural boat launch at the site and it’s used by fishermen and the public quite a bit.

“I doubt we could have built Friends Landing today with the regulations the way they are,” Caldwell said.

Access Sterling Landing via the gravel road at the base of the Devonshire Bridge outside of Montesano.

Access Friends Landing at 300 Katon Road, Montesano.