January 4, 2013

Westbrook's river visions: Start with docks and ramps?

City official William Baker wants to develop its 'extraordinary environmental amenity.'

By Leslie Bridgers lbridgers@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

WESTBROOK - William Baker started his two-hour paddle on the Presumpscot River on Monday by sliding down the riverbank past the end of Ash Street -- intentionally.

click image to enlarge

William Baker, an assistant city administrator for Westbrook, is an avid kayaker calling for better recreational access to the Presumpscot River.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

It was his only way to get there.

Baker, Westbrook's assistant city administrator and director of business and community relations, hopes to make it easier for people to enjoy the river this spring by having ramps and floating docks installed at three locations near the city's downtown.

"We've got an extraordinary environmental amenity in the center of the city, but, in essence, we have no way to get to it," Baker said Thursday.

He plans to introduce kayakers to the river at noon Saturday with a paddle during the city's first Winter West Festival -- another brainchild of Baker, a former Westbrook police chief who was hired for his new job last summer.

On Monday, the City Council will vote on whether to spend as much as $25,000 for the ramps and docks, which Baker is proposing to install near the end of Ash Street, near Cottage Place and in the northwest corner of Riverbank Park, where he also wants the city to rent kayaks and stand-up paddleboards.

Baker said he plans to apply for grants and ask for another $25,000 from the Cornelia Warren Community Association, which was started by the daughter of S.D. Warren, whose paper mill was powered by the Presumpscot.

Although the river was once used primarily for industry, studies for at least the past 20 years have suggested using it for recreation, Baker said. He said it's mentioned in plans for the city's riverfront, parks, downtown revitalization and economic development.

Last spring, Rob Mitchell, a local business owner who's an avid kayaker, drew attention to the river by talking publicly about his vision for a water park downtown.

If money and land ownership weren't issues, Baker said, "it would be hard to argue against (Mitchell's plan)."

But resources are limited. "My view is that we should be taking a step at a time," Baker said.

Mitchell said he thinks the proposed docks would get people more comfortable with the idea of getting into the river, rather than just looking at it from the riverwalk.

"This is stepping in the right direction," he said.

Still, he hasn't given up on his grand plan, complete with a man-made rapid, or standing wave, for paddlers to ride.

And neither has Baker.

"Our hope is this is going to lead to bigger and better things," he said.

The greater the attraction, the more people it will draw to downtown Westbrook, said Mitchell. As the city's leading advocate for local businesses, Baker sees that as the ultimate goal.

Theresa Willette, who owns Coastal Maine Kayak in Kennebunkport, said extreme kayakers would likely visit the river.

"They enjoy the other perspective, as well," she said of more leisurely rides. "It's not everywhere you can paddle through town."

But Willette has been hearing lately about more urban areas where kayakers can paddle, and thinks other towns in southern Maine should take notice.

"I think Portland should do it. I think Falmouth should do it. Freeport," she said. "It's a good healthy sport."

Baker said his daughter raved about the workout she got on New Year's Day, pushing a paddleboard along the half-mile stretch from the bottom of Saccarappa Falls to the Cumberland Mills Dam.

Those in search of a different kind of thrill can take the 10-minute ride down the falls, as Baker was known to do during his time as police chief.

It might be a quick trip, he said, but "then you take out and go back and do it again."

Staff Writer Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at 791-6364 or at:

lbridgers@pressherald.com

 

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