Drumming up support for Water Works Park

Clark College student leads daunting effort to revitalize rundown site

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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To get in touch with Sarah Cayton or to find out more about Water Works Park, visit the Facebook page she started.

Sitting on the concrete stage of the amphitheater at Water Works Park, Sarah Cayton said that if she looked out and saw 500 people filling the grounds in front of her, it wouldn't be enough people.

Instead, despite it being a sunny summer afternoon, there was no one around. Tall grass and weeds swayed in the breeze.

It's not surprising, considering many these days have forgotten the venue used to host Vancouver's biggest public concerts and events. That was before the bandstand at Esther Short Park was fixed up. Before the bands, crowds and vendors flowed there.

"People grew up and moved on, and this park was forgotten," Cayton said of the park just north of Clark College.

And by 2016, the amphitheater will be torn down to create a new 3 million gallon city reservoir. The site has never officially been a park, but rather part of Vancouver Water Station 1, which supplies more than 30 percent of the city's clean drinking water.

The entire upper portion of the site will be fenced off from the public. Plans keep Swift Skatepark and the northern portion of the grounds open.

The 10-year, $30 million project to replace and add new state-of-the-art wells, reservoirs, pumps, emergency power and other equipment to Water Works, as well as fencing and other security measures, will start next year.

Right now, the vintage 1930s and 1940s wells aren't seismically sound and also need security fixes, public works spokeswoman Loretta Callahan said.

"While we have a lot of different areas around the city where we try to have a good neighbor utility approach, utility funds have to be used to benefit the ratepayers of those utilities," Callahan said.

In the meantime, Cayton hopes to gather people at the spot and keep it clean. The 21-year-old full-time Clark College student said she went to the amphitheater based on a friend's recommendation, and was blown away by its tranquility. And, unfortunately, its poor condition. Graffiti covered the walls, cigarette butts were everywhere, and a few old mattresses were dumped in the lawn.

"It was a dump, and I decided that wasn't OK," Cayton said.

She started a Facebook page called Project: Water Works, and held a car wash to get cleaning supplies.

"If (the park) is nothing to somebody, that's OK because it's a huge thing to me," Cayton said.

Callahan said the city doesn't have the budget to do most maintenance, but crews do regularly paint over graffiti.

While Cayton holds out hope that plans for that portion of Water Works Park could change, she said she wants as many people as possible to enjoy it before it's closed down.

Every Wednesday, she's been hosting a drum circle at 4 p.m., with the hopes that children and folks of all stripes can enjoy the sun, space and acoustics. About 50 people came to the first circle a few months ago, but that number has dropped, she said.

As she talked, a handful of people began filtering in for the drum circle, including a father and his toddler.

"There will never be enough people in this park to satisfy me," Cayton said.

Drumming is something the Vancouver resident took up as part of her recovery from a serious brain injury she sustained last year when she was in a dirt bike accident without a helmet. Since then, she's entered school for an associate of business degree and has dreams to start a nonprofit to bring more music to children.

"It's not even about the drum circle," Cayton said. "It's about the conversation, good vibes and people getting together in the same room."

Since the area is owned by the city's water utility -- a separate account from the city's general fund -- the space has to be used to benefit Vancouver water rate payers.

Since Water Station 1's capacity is about double any of Vancouver's other stations, it's an "extremely vital part of our water system," said Tyler Clary, the city's water engineering program manager.

Clary said it isn't likely -- or financially feasible -- for the city to simply find another nearby spot that's big enough and has the elevation the gravity-based water reservoir system needs. The news of the amphitheater's impeding demise isn't new either -- the plans have been in place since about 2005, and met with the Carter Park Neighborhood Association's approval then.

The city can't issue permits for events at the amphitheater because the restrooms aren't up to snuff with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The electrical lighting system also needs an overhaul. That's also money the department doesn't have.

Yet Cayton, who also is working to start live music programs at Turtle Place near Seventh and Washington streets, said she's willing to stick with Water Works Park for as long as she can. She hopes others will join her there, too.

"Hopefully, a little exposure will help," she said.

Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542; http://www.twitter.com/col_cityhall;andrea.damewood@columbian.com.