It's been 18 years since the first conversations were held to transform 241 acres owned by the county into the Ahwahnee Hills Regional Park The transformation has been a detailed and complicated process that has taken longer than anyone involved in the process originally anticipated.
But with a strong sense of determination and persistence by the Friends of the Ahwahnee Park, a non-profit volunteer group chaired by Fern Facchino, District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler, a variety of state and county officials, and more than 3,000 volunteer hours, the park's long-awaited public opening is planned for next spring.
"To date, the park was unable to open due to security measures," Facchino said. "The park needed caretaker facilities and after working with the county for nearly a year, the facilities are in and the caretaker selection process is completed."
Many improvements have been made at the park, located on Highway 49, just north of Ahwahnee and adjoining Wasuma Elementary School, including:
Old buildings, except those that could be renovated for historical purposes, were removed.
A major environmental clean-up (dilapidated buildings, scrap metal, dump sites and non-operating wells on the property) was completed.
Construction of a service road.
Infrastructure improvements including drilling wells for potable water and installing a new septic system.
Paving the entrance road and parking lot.
Building a new 1,800 square-foot Interpretive Center.
Installation of three handicap accessible restrooms.
Installation of barbecues, 25 picnic tables, and benches.
Construction of walking paths, and foot bridges.
Repair a washed out dam and spillway.
Addition of security fencing.
Stabilization of a historic barn.
Installation of chain link fence, purchase trespassing signs, and strategic placement of boulders to keep off-road vehicles out.
Community volunteers have conducted trail maintenance, created a fire break, developed a cross country trail, an equestrian trail.
Historical artifacts have been collected to be displayed in the Interpretive Center.
The plan design for the new educational Oak/ Acorn Center has been approved by the state and is now pending final county approval. Once completed the Yosemite/Sequoia Resource Conservation and Development Council, a regional non-profit organization that has partnered with The Friends and Madera County on the project, will send out the request for construction proposal. The building is anticipated to be complete, with energy efficiency in mind, as soon as weather permits.
"We are excited to be able to provide a regional park for all of Madera County," Facchino said. "When this beautiful park is opened, it will be a place where families can gather to be outdoors and enjoy a natural setting. This is the first park of its kind in Madera County and we are happy to be able to preserve this beautiful land for future generations."
"I can't thank the Friends of the Ahwahnee Regional Park enough for their tireless dedication to this project," Wheeler said. "This has truly been a labor of love, and has taken the firm commitment of the Friends, the county, and our partners to get here. It's very exciting to see the dream of this regional park finally become a reality."
To date, The Friends have obtained about $2.1 million to develop the park. The Friends recently received a $25,000 Chukchansi Community Grant to help maintain the park.
The Friends continue to seek funding for equipment to maintain the park and will need ongoing support from community volunteers for park projects, to ensure park sustainability in the years to come.
The Ahwahnee Hills Regional Park project was first discussed in 1995 when conversations at the Ahwahnee Community Council recognized the desire to transform the county property into a regional park.
In 2000, then Supervisor Gary Gilbert, along with the county board of supervisors established a steering committee comprised of two people from each supervisorial district. The Steering Committee recommendations were approved and efforts begun to establish the park at the county site.
In 2011 the Friends of Ahwahnee Hills Regional Park was established to lead these efforts, and on May 10, 2011, the county and the Friends entered into a lease agreement that names the Friends the official operator of the park for a 20-year term. The Friends lease the facility from the county for a dollar a year.
Also in 2011, county supervisors voted to approve an agreement with Yosemite Sequoia Resource Conservation & Development Council for management services of the park, which is being funded through a grant from California State Parks and Recreation. The YSRCDC administers grants on behalf of the park.
The Friends then drafted and finalized a plan, applied for and obtained federal and state funding, recruited and utilized volunteers, worked with federal, state and local governments to move forward with the plan.
Although there were unexpected and frustrating obstacles including governmental red tape, bad weather and reoccurring vandalism, all involved were determined to keep the project moving forward.
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.