Steps are being taken once again to get the Ahwahnee Hills Regional Park open. The Madera County Board of Supervisors recently voted to approve an agreement with Yosemite Sequoia Resource Conservation & Development Council for management services at the 241-acre park, which will be funded through a grant from California State Parks and Recreation.
Due to reduced budgets and staff over the last few years, the Madera County Resource Management Agency can no longer administer grants on behalf of the park as it has done in the past and the new agreement with YSRCD will take care of that.
District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler thanked the "Friends of the Ahwahnee Park" for all their time and energy.
"I think the committee, is frustrated with how long it takes to get anything done and that its (the park) not open and being used," Wheeler said. "The county didn't help on this and I've been pushing it like mad."
The project has been in the works for more than 12 years. On May 10, 2011, the county and "Friends of the Ahwahnee Park" entered into a long-term lease for a dollar a year.
Five grants totaling $1.7 million have been acquired over the past 11 years to help with recreational trails and a major clean-up including the removal of dilapidated buildings, dump sites and non-operating wells on the property.
"Friends of the Ahwahnee Park" Chairperson Fern Facchino said three years ago that it could be frustrating at times when dealing with three governments -- federal, state and county.
The original plan was to open the park in 2007.
Work completed at the park include equestrian and hiking trails, three bridges, construction of a service road, paving the entrance road and parking lot, dam and spillway repair, installation of 25 picnic tables, barbecues and benches, restoration of the barn and completion of the Interpretive Center.
Hayter said one important step is to move a caretaker onto the property. He said people have been cutting the fence as an access into the park to ride motorcycles and ATVs and they need a caretaker on the property to make sure these intrusions are stopped.
Now that YSRCD is administering the grant, Wheeler hopes to see things move forward at the park.
Steve Haze, vice president and executive director of YSRCD, said he sees working towards the completion of the park with the county as a "perfect fit" because that's what their organization is about. The organization, according to its website, helps people "protect their natural resources in a way that improves our economy, environment and way of life." Their organization is based out of the Old Mill site in North Fork.
The organization is now responsible for the project's day to day operations as far as financial and administrative management. They will be working alongside RMA Director Doug Papagni and the county's program management consultant Bill Hayter of WL Hayter and Associates.
"We're helping out the county and we're helping out the committee (Friends of Ahwahnee Hills) and hopefully going to do some good things as it has to do with residents of Madera County," Haze said. 'We're really excited about it."
The next step for the park is the renovation of an old bicycle building on the property into the Nature Education Building, which will educate school children about the local environment, including the Oaks and acorns in the area. The organization recently went out to the park and did the initial survey. Once they review the design, structure, and permitting requirements with the county, they will send the project out for bid. Haze said to make sure it's a state of the art educational center, they have assigned David Konno as project manager.
Certain structural aspects of the building, and its appearance, will be retained for historical purposes.
"I'm just really impressed by the committee and the commitment from the county," Haze said. "It's nice to have some good news."
Haze wants the project to be a community based initiative, including jobs, and would like to know what the community would like to see as far as amenities and improvements at the park.
Other improvements for the park include pouring a foundation for a caretaker residence and some foundations for RV parking if needed for special events and fencing between Wasuma Elementary School and the park.
Hayter said they hope to have everything completed and the park open by spring 2013.
Once completed, the park will transform the site that was originally the home of the Ahwahnee Tavern, built by William Sell in the late 1880s. The historic tavern served as the way station on the stage road from Raymond to Wawona and on to Yosemite Valley.
As noted in a Jan. 17, 2007 Sierra Star article by historian Dwight Barnes, the tavern's dining hall was visited by many notables including President Theodore Roosevelt, Susan B. Anthony, the Crown Prince of Belgium, Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller.
The property was also the site of a tuberculosis sanitarium which operated through 1969 and a boys' juvenile delinquent facility which closed in 1986.
Pictures, artifacts and memorabilia from the stage stop, sanitarium and boys school are being sought from the community for the Interpretive Center.