REI wants to join the state’s revitalization effort at Lake Sammamish State Park by relocating operations for its national outdoor school there. It may also help bring recreation programs and a new outdoor center to the park.
With the Cascade mountain wilderness to the east and the waters of Lake Washington and Puget Sound to the west, hikers, boaters and picnickers in the region have often bypassed Lake Sammamish State Park.
Mud and blackberries choked the extensive trails and wetlands. With the exception of some hot summer weekends when the sandy lakeshore was crowded with sunbathers and swimmers, supporters say the 500-acre park often seemed neglected and underused.
Now a major effort is under way by the state and Friends of Lake Sammamish State Park to rejuvenate the park. Native habitat is being restored along three salmon-bearing streams. A new $2.6 million bathhouse opened at the expansive Sunset Beach last year, and boat docks and a protected swimming area will be added in 2017.
Plans also call for more cultural events to serve the increasingly international Eastside and for expanded recreation opportunities, all with the goal of connecting more people to the outdoors.
Among the ideas being considered to revitalize Lake Sammamish — and fund additional trail and habitat improvements — is a partnership with outdoor retailer REI.
REI has proposed relocating operations for its national outdoor school to Lake Sammamish and building an outdoor-activities center that would provide administrative offices for its programs as well as space for a ranger station, classroom training and equipment rental.
In a 20-page statement of “partnership opportunities” that outlines its experience with similar ventures in other areas of the country, the co-op also proposes an outdoor stage or pavilion for movies and concerts, and an array of new programs including cycling, hiking, navigation, photography and paddle sports.
“Cultivating relationships to increase engagement, participant growth and program offerings in outdoor recreation is what we do best,” said REI officials, in a November response to the state parks system’s call for redevelopment proposals at Lake Sammamish. The proposal notes that REI Outdoor School operates in more than 300 national, state and local parks around the country, including in 10 Washington state parks.
Parks officials, stung by public backlash concerning other proposed commercial partnerships in state parks, including a resort near a wildlife corridor at Snoqualmie Pass, say they have not made any decisions about REI’s involvement at Lake Sammamish.
“We haven’t said yes to all those plans,” said Peter Herzog, assistant director for development for Washington State Parks. “REI and Parks are moving ahead very slowly and judiciously.” He said REI will offer some classes this summer and Parks will continue discussions with the company.
The partnership could give Parks a percentage of REI’s program-and-rental revenue, and Herzog added that a building could be jointly financed. No details have been negotiated, he said.
“At no time do we want it (the proposed activities) to overshadow the main purpose of the park, which is to engage urban populations in the natural world,” Herzog said.
While many park supporters welcome the involvement of REI, with its huge network of members and its potential to invest significant money and time, others are concerned about the possible commercialization and the potential to squeeze out a local kayak rental and instruction business that’s operated on the lake for 19 years.
“The primary purpose of Washington State Parks is not to generate income, but to set aside land and allow people to experience the natural biodiversity. When large corporations are allowed to take over, the public loses,” said John LaMunyon, lead pastor of the Sammamish Hills Lutheran Church and a former instructor for Issaquah Paddle Sports and Kayak Academy, the local park-rental business.
Other park advocates welcome REI’s energy and experience. They say Lake Sammamish is an urban park, surrounded by cities, and can offer activities and programs that might not be appropriate in a more pristine wilderness park.
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“This isn’t the backside of Mount Rainier,” said Jim Mackey, a boater who lives on the lake and is a member of Friends of Lake Sammamish State Park, founded in 2013. Mackey contrasts Sammamish with King County’s Marymoor Park in Redmond, at the opposite end of the lake, with its dog park, velodrome, radio-controlled plane area, outdoor movies and concerts, and Cirque du Soleil.
“Most of the time it (Lake Sammamish State Park) looks abandoned. I don’t think most people in Bellevue even know where the lake is,” Mackey said.
At the Friends’ offices, adjacent to the park-ranger headquarters, Executive Director Janet Farness points to drawings for a $1 million all-abilities playground the state hopes to build this summer. Friends raised $250,000 toward the project, which will feature a 9-foot blue heron water-spray feature, a zip-line and a climb-on-and-through re-creation of an old Cascades mine.
The organization wants to add interpretive signage to the poorly mapped park trails and more activities to introduce visitors to native plants, salmon migration and the history of native tribes in the area.
Birders, boaters and fly fishermen all want more access to the park, she said. Large groups of multigenerational East Indian and Persian families hold celebrations there. Last summer, 800 children completed junior ranger programs.
Some big events are also planned, including a national beach volleyball tournament June 2 to 5.
“We say yes to all those things,” Farness said.
Kayakers’ ‘dream job’ may end
She said the next step is an alliance that can attract new investments to help accelerate the long-term plans.
“REI is an obvious partner to build outdoor enthusiasts,” Farness said.
State parks officials in April renewed a three-year contract with Issaquah Paddle Sports to continue its current boat rental and to operate a snack bar in the new bathhouse on Sunset Beach.
But Parks’ intention is to develop a transition plan under which REI would take over paddle sport rentals and lessons, said State Parks Assistant Director Herzog.
That’s not the outcome the local owners want. Barb Gronseth, who with her husband George rents kayaks, stand-up paddle boards and paddle boats on the smaller Tibbetts Beach at Lake Sammamish, and teaches sea kayaking, said they’re not ready to retire.
“It’s a dream job,” said Gronseth, an early graduate of the National Outdoor Leadership School. She and others familiar with the business said George is one of the region’s most respected instructors, with students who come from around the world.
“We’d like to continue doing our rental business here,” she said on a recent sunny morning in the park. There aren’t any signs on the beach for the company, just a couple dozen upturned plastic kayaks on the sand.
Gronseth doesn’t want to bad-mouth REI. One of her first jobs out of college was at the co-op, and she said it was one of the best places for women to work in the outdoor world and gain experience in business and management.
And she supports the state’s vision of a more visited, active park. “Without the state, there wouldn’t be this great access to the lake. It would all be private,” she said.
Issaquah City Council President Stacy Goodman used to spend sunny summers at Lake Sammamish with her young family when they moved to the area 27 years ago. In the intervening decades, she said, the park “didn’t appear to be valued” as an urban refuge and playground, and fewer of her acquaintances made their way there.
Issaquah annexed the park into the city last year, in part, she said, to add city resources to the state’s revitalization efforts. She said there’s plenty of room in the park for multiple partnerships.
An agreement with REI, she said, “shouldn’t be to the exclusion of other people and entities. I think we’ve told that to the state.”