DAYTON — Forging a new path is not an easy task, and residents from here and Waitsburg were reminded of that at a meeting this weekend.
However, the leaders of the design “charette,” or workshop, reminded people that every journey, no matter how long, has an end. And the end of this journey could be a recreational opportunity unlike anything the two communities have seen before.
Leaders from the Port of Columbia welcomed the crowd of just over 100 people Saturday night to the workshop at the Columbia County Fairgrounds Pavilion.
The crux of the meeting was to overview the compilation of about 36 hours of hard work that a consortium of students from Washington State University and the University of Washington and members of the Washington Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects put together starting Friday afternoon.
The group was brought in as part of grants awarded from the National Parks Service and Washington State Department of Transportation to help build a plan that can eventually be crafted into what will be known as the Touchet Valley Trail.
All of the presenters pointed out that it’s not as simple as laying down a path — there’s private land, congested areas, thick forest at one point, narrow streets within Dayton, a plethora of historical landmarks, and it’s all constricted to following the path of a Port of Columbia-owned railway.
“It was super intimidating, coming in here and saying ‘this is how we think we should design it,’” said UW student Sidney Greenslate, 25, of Portland. “... I don’t want to leave anyone out or even say that I know better than the people who live here.”
Greenslate was one of about 12 students involved in the planning process. They were all housed by volunteers in the two communities.
“We couldn’t have bought this kind of help,” said Joy Smith, of Waitsburg, who is part of the trail’s steering committee and helped organize the students’ housing arrangements. Smith said it was a joy having the team.
“That’s why I love this program so much,” said WSU student Kiersten Butterworth, 20. “It’s a field trip, but it’s also more than that.”
The plan was split up between four teams: one team was in charge of an overall vision and recreational elements for the trail — which ended up being called “spacious skies” — another team handled design from Waitsburg to the unincorporated community of Huntsville, another went through downtown Dayton to its city limits, and the third group designed the portion between Huntsville and Dayton.
“It’s fun for all these ideas we’ve talked about to suddenly become pictures,” said Katherine Witherington, economic development director at the Port of Columbia. “For me, that’s really great to see.”
Pictures lined the perimeter of the pavilion portraying concepts drawn that day by the students and architects.
After the initial presentation from the four design groups, attendees went around the room placing blue dots on the concepts and ideas they liked most.
Some of the plans were as simple as a crossing at a road; some were as bold as a potential diversion through the interior of the old apple barn depot at Dumas Station, which received permission from the owners.
Other highlights included a boardwalk through Lewis and Clark Trail State Park and a pedestrian underpass beneath U.S. Highway 12 connecting the two sides of that park, lighted trail markers for nighttime use, historical markers, trailheads in Dayton and Waitsburg and a variety of vegetation to be planted along the path.
Even though the trail is still several years from even breaking ground, the charette itself was already the result of a few years of work.
What began as an idea at the Port eventually rolled into the Blue Mountain Region Trails Plan in 2017.
The regional plan from Walla Walla’s Community Council was adopted in 2018, and the Port of Columbia received the grants that resulted with the concept plan developments presented Saturday night.
Design and engineering could happen in 2020 if things go well.
The students’ next task is to take all of their work from the weekend, compile it into one plan, hope for some good grades, and also present Dayton and Waitsburg with something that can eventually be funded.
“Nothing gets funding without a plan,” said Alex Stone, a community planner attending the workshop on behalf of the National Parks Service.
She noted that if the community could rally behind a design, it would go a long way in helping secure funding for the ambitious, nearly 10-mile long trail.
The evening wrapped up with some final notes from the contributors, raffle drawings, and a group photo to remember the intensive weekend journey for the students.
“I spent all day in this building, basically,” Greenslate said. “It’s pretty intense.”