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St. Helens City Council hears soft pitch for developing a private campground on city-owned island park

SPOTLIGHT FILE PHOTO - The St. Helens Sand Island Marine Park currently has 37 unmarked campsites on it, but with limited access to monitor the island, it has become common for refuse and garbage to be found left behind by transient boaters. Two St. Helens residents are proposing the development of a private campground on the island to help deter misuse and help with park cleanup. The St. Helens City Council heard a soft pitch last week from two businessmen proposing to develop a privatized campground on Sand Island to increase park usage and help deter would-be troublemakers.

St. Helens residents Brad Hendrickson, the owner of the St. Helens Marina, and Andrew Niemi, owner of Lower Columbia Engineering, pitched the concept of developing a 50-site campground along with several day-use areas in the city's 32-acre park during a May 2 City Council work session.

The Sand Island Marine Park, which is owned and operated by the city of St. Helens, currently offers 37 unmarked campsites, numerous nature trails, two composting toilets, and concrete boat docks.

Niemi explained that the proposal would serve two purposes — help facilitate more recreational activity and help deter "ne'er-do-wells" from the island.

"If it was used for a positive purpose, there would be less likelihood for ne'er-do-wells to do things on the island," Niemi said.

In 2008, the city ran a shuttle to and from the island, but reports of fights, overcrowding and a lack of oversight followed. Recently, transient boaters have been known to live on the island and leave behind garbage and personal belongings, which require city parks staff to clean.

Niemi and Hendrickson proposed the campground as a solution to that problem. A camp host would live on the island seasonally to help monitor campers and visitors, and a regular shuttle service to transport people to and from the island could be offered, which could also be used by city staff, Hendrickson explained.

"The benefit of having someone out there to monitor the campground is that some of those things can be managed," Hendrickson said.

Access to the island is restricted by boat, and limited parks department resources and staff time make it difficult to monitor when the island is being misused by transient boaters, or when trash is left behind.

The city currently uses a city boat to occasionally clear debris and maintain the concrete docks, Public Works Supervisor Neal Sheppeard explained. The only law enforcement agency with boat access to the island is the Columbia County Sheriff's Marine Patrol unit.

While they haven't had direct conversations with the police department yet, Niemi explained that the proposed shuttle could easily be used by city police.

Niemi and Hendrickson said they would be interested in leasing the park property from the city and proposed a 10-year lease to allow time to develop campsites, cabins or other buildings on the island as the idea developed.

City Councilor Doug Morten viewed the option of an on-site camp host as a potential security improvement. The arrangement would be similar to the having the city's parks supervisor living in a private home near McCormick Park to monitor park activity, as currently exists.

"That's what I'm really interested in, is the security this provides," Morten said. "I see this as security as much as it is promotion of recreation in our parks."

Councilor Susan Conn and Mayor Rick Scholl both expressed interest in getting more information regarding the concept's development.

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