By Lynn West
Over three hundred members of the South West Olympia Neighborhood Association (SWONA) celebrated their 25th anniversary at a party this past August. They were also happily inaugurating the Decatur Pathway Park project. The pathway’s transformation into Decatur Pathway Park has been a long, often-frustrating journey. Thanks to a collaboration of SWONA and the City of Olympia through the Pathways Park Program grants, it is now becoming a reality.
On a warm late September afternoon I met Phil Cornell, project coordinator and vice president of SWONA, at the site of the Decatur Pathway Park at the south end of Decatur Street. “This small patch of land holds much promise for the quality of life in South West Olympia, and it has been a rallying point for SWONA for years,” Phil said.
According to Bethany Weidner, SWONA President, “We generally marvel at what is possible when a neighborhood bands together to do something and is aided rather than stopped by its government.” Phil Cornell’s grant was funded by the City of Olympia in March 2015, and work on the project began immediately. Phil credits Michelle Swanson Jane Gauger, and Tim Richardson from the City of Olympia’s public works department as being instrumental to keeping the project on track.
George Johnson has owned the home and property adjacent to the Pathway Park for over 40 years. He was happy to share his perspective. “For years this was just a dirt path at the end of the road here, but when the Olympia Auto Mall was built, the city wanted to make Decatur a through street to connect with Canton,” he told me. “The neighborhood put up a fight then and has been fighting ever since.”
He explained that for a while the “path” remained just a rough dirt tract, used by determined bike riders and walkers. “However, several years ago a new Olympia Public Works Director agreed to lay down an asphalt strip to ease the journey for residents, so we had an official path and a small poetry post for announcements.”
On the day I visited with Phil, it was still easy to see glimpses of both the “before and after” of Decatur Pathway Park. The old Poetry Post lay on its side, the victim of vandalism. The neighbors are hopeful that the design of the new post will prevent future vandalism.
Kathleen Byrd, a Westside resident and SPSCC English professor, has fought for the park for years and was instrumental in creating the Poetry Post as an entry to the park. “Over five years ago, I facilitated an event for May Day poetry by SPSCC poetry students, and we combined this with the first day of the city’s bicycle commuter contest,” she explained.
According to Phil, more than 30 volunteers have “come out on a Saturday and worked for several hours regardless of the weather.” Without the volunteers, says Phil, this project would never have happened.
Kathleen is among many folks headed to and from SPSCC who use the path for their daily commute. Gerard Dolmans, another English professor, sped by before I could stop him, but I had better luck with Photography professor, Dan Meuse, who obliged my request to take his picture. As Phil was showing me the work the city was doing on new lighting and drainage and where the beautiful new sign designating the park would be placed, a young couple hurried down the path on their way to the Court House.
My husband and I returned to check out the path this week. It was late afternoon, and we chatted with several folks walking and biking home from work. The raised beds that on my first visit had been empty were now filled with rich soil. “Each day a little more progress is made,” said Chris Hempleman, who designed the beds and selected the plants. “Planting days are the last two weekends in October,” she added.
As a Master Gardener, Chris used her expertise in selecting an array of native plants, such as Blue and Red Elderberry, Pacific Dogwood, Red Flowering Current and Mock Orange. Chris cited her criteria: “plants that are low maintenance, require minimal water, are good pollinators, and are compatible with the existing habitat.” She hopes the plants will provide both enjoyment and inspiration for those who pass through.
Many SWONA members are long time residents of the neighborhood, but newcomer Brent McBride, Assistant Chief at South Bay Fire District 8, said he and his wife chose their first home wisely. “The SWONA board is encouraging younger residents to get involved, so when I was asked to be a member of the board, I agreed. Just look at how the Pathway Park will add to the security and tranquility of our neighborhood.”
Cornell is the perfect Project Coordinator according to everyone working with him on the Pathway. Unassuming as he appears, his organizational skills allow each committee member to accept ownership of the project as well. However, the group’s mantra is, “Talk to Phil about that; he has the overview.”
It was a pleasure to take Phil’s guided tour, and I look forward to the Grand Opening of Decatur Pathways Park next spring. Take a look yourself and learn how a determined group with vision can make a big difference in one local neighborhood.