Councilmember Michael Perrow sent me these incredible aerial photos of the completed Donkey Creek restoration project and I had to pass them along. It also gives me an excuse to write a bit about the history of how it all happened. For details on the project funding, go here.
Those new to town may not remember Borgen’s Hardware that sat on the location of Donkey Creek Park right up against the road. George Borgen and his store were town treasures. Borgen Boulevard now bares his name for that reason. More than a business, it was a part of Gig Harbor’s heritage and a connection to the old days when it was the Austin-Erickson Mill (see pictures of property at the History Museum site).
Edit: Appears I’m not the only one with a conflicting memory of the name of the store and what I’ve found online. Or perhaps it had different names at different times. A reference on the History Museum site called it “Borgen’s Hardware” but the Secretary of State and my recollection was “Borgen Building Supply.” Thanks to Billy Sehmel for the catch.
He was also an interesting character and constantly coming up with clever in-jokes with his friends and customers. My favorite was his advertisement for free latex paint thinner, more commonly known as water. Rumor has it an eager Gateway reporter once did a story about Borgen dumping latex paint thinner into Donkey Creek. I thought about trying to find the story but really, whether it’s true is kinda beside the point.
Despite having passed 17 years ago, someone still puts out a small tree each Christmas at the park in homage to the one Borgen used to put on top of his store every year. That’s the kind of lasting impact he had on his community, family, and friends.
After Borgen died the property went up for sale. John Holmaas, a real estate agent who knew the property and also happened to be a passionate support of parks, urged the City to buy it. Problem was, nobody really knew what we’d do with it. Then Councilmember Owel and I both happened to be absent that meeting and the Council passed on it. We asked that it be brought back up at the next meeting and successfully convinced the Council that clear plans for the property weren’t necessary to know it’s worth to the community. It had our most intense commercial zoning so its economic potential was fairly clear, but the idea of preserving and restoring this corner of the bay had more cultural value to the community.
After the property was purchased there was initially some thought that the building would be preserved. It was one of the few remaining Austin-Erickson log buildings and there were lots of ideas of how to use the space. However, the inspection report made clear that just wasn’t an option. According to the inspector, the only thing holding it up were the carpenter ants linked in chains arm in arm.
Around this time the community began developing its master plan for the site. It was quickly clear people had a much grander vision than we’d initially anticipated, incorporating several surrounding properties and “daylighting” the section of Donkey Creek which had been trapped in a small, crooked, pipe for several decades.
Eventually the Harbor History Museum began looking at acquiring the site across the road. They were critical partners in this process allowing the City to acquire easement for the stream and trail between the sites. Pierce County’s conservation futures program helped the City acquire Austin Estuary Park adding a southern border to the master plan and a pedestrian connection away from the road.
The result is an experience you will find in very few other small cities. In the physical center of town, there is now a way for the public to walk a few feet off the street and find yourself in restored habitat that will be forever protected from development.
There’s more that can be done, but that’s for another Council to handle.
- Don’t be limited by what can be accomplished presently. It’s important to leave room for the idea and ambition to mature.
- Politicians tend to have short-range outlooks tied to their election cycles. The really important things worth doing will take much longer than that. Several electeds have come and gone in the time it took to find the funding and the will to get it done, but they each played a critical role.
- Set aside reserves so you can take advantage of unexpected opportunities. We were able to afford the property because the Council had the foresight prior to my arrival of setting up a property acquisition fund — essentially a savings account for revenue that was surplus to their needs. But we almost gave up on the restoration project because funding from Congressman Dicks and Senator Murray came in the barrel of the recession when funds were short. With some juggling and a leap of faith, we figured out a way to pull it off, but it wasn’t without controversy. I’m proud to say we’ve now set up a Strategic Reserve, a longtime goal of mine, that provides a source of cash for a rainy day, grant match, or some other unexpected opportunity. The policy is to replenish the fund within three years.
- Engage partners. This project couldn’t have happened without the History Museum, former County Councilmember Lee, the intervention of a private citizen (Wade Perrow) on construction design, or a literal Act of Congress. There were so many hands in it I hesitate to list them because I know I’ll leave someone out.
- Plans are for preparation, not dictation. While most of the elements were there in the master plan for this site, it didn’t happen according to the neat drawings and timeline found in our Parks, Recration, and Open Space Plan.