Local businessmen propose idea for public shuttle access

A view of the southeast portion of Sand Island.

Julie Thompson/The Chronicle

On Monday, April 9, two local businessmen went before the Parks Commission to propose an ambitious project that would develop private camping, maintenance and a public access shuttle to and from Sand Island.

Brad Hendrickson, owner of St. Helens Marina, and Andrew Niemi, of the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership, said they have the means and infrastructure to relieve the City of St. Helens from the burden of maintaining the island and monitoring problem vagrancy and theft, while providing open access to those members of the public who cannot visit the island without a boat.

“We’ve had employees of St. Helens Marina come forward and testify on several occasions about the extreme theft and just disruptions that some people are making in the marina area, especially theft, and undesirables in many sense, all hours of the night, that’s scary to some people who live aboard down there,” City Council President Doug Morten said before introducing Hendrickson and Niemi. “This makes so much sense when it comes to monitoring who’s on Sand Island when they come over and having some kind of authority to enforce our park rules, so this is huge, I think.”

Hendrickson said that by bringing the shuttle back, the city could provide better access to it’s biggest park, which stretches out over 40 acres. The shuttle would also provide access to local police, which he said has been one of the barriers to the ability to monitor the island itself.

“Vagrancy, like Doug was talking about, we have a problem on the river,” Hendrickson said. “You have people living on boats and they’re not paying moorage and they’re not doing anything other than taking up dock space that everyone else has paid for with their boater registration.”

Hendrickson said they’ve seen a lot of thievery in the past when such boats show up, and by maintaining a presence on the island, it could be curtailed by reinforcing the laws that are already in place. “By getting a presence there you take care of all that, and I am sitting in a position to be able to handle the traffic there,” he said.

Niemi and Hendrickson made an informal, introductory presentation on their idea. Niemi said they had already met with City Administrator John Walsh and a couple of city councilors who had encouraged them to present their idea to the Parks Committee prior to presenting a more formal proposal to the city.

“It seems like a natural fit with the facilities that St. Helens Marina currently has in place,” Niemi said. “They have restrooms, showers, a convenience store down there, and an ability to pretty easily monitor the activities out on the island and get people back and forth, manage the trash and other essential infrastructure requirements for such a proposal.”

Niemi said they would most likely come up with a proposal for a lease agreement where, essentially, a portion of the island would be under private lease to operate the campground. The legalese and monetary portion of such a proposal would still need to be worked out over the course of several public meetings.

“This is the beginning of a very long process, I think,” Parks Committee board member Jerry Belcher said. “The city needs to get their fair share and I don’t know what that is.”

In theory, the shuttle would run hourly throughout the business day, roughly from May to September. A nominal fee would be charged to those taking the trip, on top of a camping fee for those who wish to spend the night. Right now, the city spends an estimated $2,000 a month to maintain the island, which the privatized business would take over.

“Keep in mind, the money part of it, they’re saving us a whole bunch of money right up front,” Public Works Operations Director Neal Sheppeard said.

Belcher noted, since the committee is a public entity, the opportunity to run the private enterprise would have to be an open bidding process. “I don’t know how the legalese of how that works, but we can’t just say, ‘Brad and Andrew, this is yours,” he said.

“All I want is something to happen. I’ve looked at that island for 22 years now and nothing has happened other than a $250,000 toilet, in all honesty,” Hendrickson said. “We’re going to be providing a benefit to the city in changing the waterfront in a lot of ways. There’s a lot of fun things you can do out there, especially since we have a new part of town that we’ve purchased that will get built on at some point in time, so we really are going to be transforming a little bit more of downtown St. Helens, so I think it’s a good fit.”

The Parks Committee voted unanimously on a proposal to allow Hendrickson and Niemi to move forward with the idea. The next step will involve the businessmen putting together a more formal proposal to take before the City Council, where the legalese involving revenue and other technical details will be more thoroughly considered.

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