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Sunday, July 22, 2018

Officials Explore Ways to Increase Visitation at Rio Salado Project


Last month officials from the Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Project and the Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Ad Hoc Committee met with residents to discuss ideas for increasing foot traffic, as well as the possibility of holding events, at the Rio Salado Project.


Since opening a little more than a year ago, the project has seen far fewer visitors than the maximum number outlined by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. After review of the Environmental Impact Statement and consulting with experts from federal and state agencies, the Corps established 523,500 people a year as the preserve’s limit. Currently, the Rio Salado Project is seeing an average of 21 visitors a day or two percent of the capacity.


From the beginning, the primary purpose of the Rio Salado Project was to restore the native vegetation and wildlife, while recreation has remained a secondary objective. That basis still remains; however, the low visitor turnout is admittedly alarming to Rio Salado Project Director Karen Williams, especially because the project’s second phase – Rio Salado Oeste – will require about $154 million in federal and public funding to complete.


“People will not support what they don’t see a benefit in,” Williams said. “We need to do everything we can to create a wonderful public amenity.”


Williams points to attendance numbers from Rio Salado Park at 12th Street and Elwood Road as evidence of the low turnout at the Rio Salado Project. When the Environmental Impact Statement was written in 1998, 10,400 people had visited the 14-acre park that sits on the Del Rio Landfill. The area open in the Rio Salado Project covers nearly 30 times the acreage of Rio Salado Park.


In an effort to create guidelines for holding future events, parks and recreational areas with similar characteristics as the Rio Salado Project were discussed during the meeting. In addition to preserving the habitat, staffing, security and maintenance were concerns taken into consideration, as was the limited parking. Currently, there are a combined 102 parking spaces at entrances at 16th Street, 7th Street and Central Avenue. That number will eventually reach about 200 when the Audubon Nature Center is built on the south bank at Central Avenue and the staging area and operations facility are added on the north side of the river at 7th Avenue.


It’s likely any major events, if approved, would be held at the gateways at Central Avenue. Two additional gateways have been planned and designed for the northwest and southwest quadrants along Central Avenue, but they still require funding before construction can begin.

One organization wanting to use the Rio Salado Project as a venue for hosting events is the South Mountain/Laveen Chamber of Commerce. Chairman Steve Glueck, who also serves as vice chair for the Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Ad Hoc Committee, is convinced the habitat will be the main ingredient in the future redevelopment and revitalization of the South Mountain area because it will serve as an attraction for educational and recreational activities, giving businesses such as restaurants and related recreational enterprises reason to locate nearby.


The master plan for the South Mountain area includes the Beyond the Banks project, which provides for commercial and residential development south of the Rio Salado to Broadway Road, he added. As well, continuing reclamation throughout the Rio Salado Project will motivate the developers and investment that will make Beyond the Banks a reality.


“The Rio Salado Habitat Restoration area is extremely special, very unique and unlike any park facility in the Valley,” Glueck said. “It needs a public use policy that will both protect the habitat and encourage public use, particularly in the South Mountain and Laveen villages. I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to say the importance of this measure can be compared to the impact that the Gateway Arch has had on downtown St. Louis.”


Although the Rio Salado Project was not designed to be used after dark, officials agreed to start compiling a list of possible events so an analysis could be completed to determine how damaging the activities would be on the environment around the habit.


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