FAIRBANKS — Standing on Fairbanks’ newest — and only — beach one sunny day in late May, Steve Taylor could envision throngs of beach goers sunbathing, building sand castles and splashing around in the nearby lake.
The only sign of traffic in the sand on this particular day, however, were fresh goose tracks and droppings.
“The geese are using it,” said Taylor, a project coordinator for the Fairbanks North Star Borough parks and recreation department, pointing out the tracks.
But it won’t be long before people can walk barefoot on the new, sandy beach at Tanana Lakes Recreation Area in south Fairbanks, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported.
After almost seven years of planning and six years of construction, the borough is planning to open the new 750-acre recreation area at the end of South Cushman Street in one week. The borough has set June 13 as the tentative opening date.
“I’m just itching to get it open but we have to make sure it’s ready,” said Taylor, who ramrodded the project.
The beach, which is 1,000 feet long and covers just more than 4.5 acres, was the last big project to be completed before the new rec area is opened. A contractor, Exclusive Paving, hauled in more than 200 truckloads of sand and spread it with a bulldozer to build the beach.
“This is what $45,000 will get you,” Taylor said.
That’s how much it cost the borough to buy the almost five tons of sand from Exclusive Paving and have it hauled in and spread, which was actually pretty cheap, he said.
“They had a mountain of sand and they were looking to get rid of it,” Taylor said. “It was a mutually beneficial deal. They gave us an exceptional price on it.”
The price tag for the beach is only a fraction of the $3.1 million that has been sunk into the development of Tanana Lakes Recreation Area but the borough, which has put almost $1.1 million of its money into the project, is hoping it will pay big dividends by giving local residents a place to recreate in a safe, controlled environment that’s close to town.
The idea of a recreation area at the end of South Cushman Street was first brought up in the 1990s.
Back then, the area was a breeding ground for late-night partiers, vandals and other miscreants. The landscape was littered with the metal skeletons of burned-up cars, shot-up refrigerators, and fire pits filled with broken glass and half-burned pallets.
Over time, the idea gained momentum, support and financial footing in the form of funds to begin cleaning up the area and start the design phase. Clean up started in 2006, the master plan was adopted in 2007 and construction began in 2008.
“It took us a long time to get here,” Taylor said.
State and federal grants totaling $1.8 million have provided the biggest chunk of the funding for the rec area and the borough also received $235,000 in private funding.
When current borough parks and director Mike Bork came on the job in November 2011, the rec area was “still pretty raw.”
“It was piles of junk metal, burned-up car shells, 50 different spots where people had had bonfires and left burned pallets sitting around, broken glass everywhere,” he said. “Being able to compare what it looked like two years ago to what it looks like now is incredible.”
The rec area also benefited from a $9.4 million public works project to extract gravel out of one of the lakes for the borough landfill, which created the beach grades, a parking lot and a portion of the road that leads into the area, Northlake Lane.
“We wouldn’t be where we are now if the landfill didn’t need 800,000 yards of gravel last year,” Taylor said.
The cleanup effort is ongoing — Taylor and a ranger aide recently filled two pickup trucks with garbage cleaned up during a five-hour evening shift — and there is some finish work to do, but the rec area has been “roughed in,” Taylor said.
The rec area is still pretty bare bones compared to its borough sibling, the more-developed Chena Lake Recreation Area in North Pole, but it’s a start, Taylor said.
The area features two lakes, one for non-motorized users such as swimmers, canoeists, kayakers and rafters, and one for motorized users on personal watercraft or boats. The latter lake has two concrete ramps for launching boats with a floating dock in between them and can be used to access the Tanana River.
The beach at the bigger of the two lakes, which are remnant channels of the Tanana River created when a levy was built years ago, is going to be the big draw, Taylor said. It’s as big, if not bigger, than the beach at Chena Lake.
There is also a small picnic area with a pavilion, picnic tables, grills and what will eventually be a grassy area.
Two short nature trails have been built and the plan is to build a trail that loops around the bigger of the two lakes.
There is only restroom facility, a vault toilet at the picnic area. The borough has plans for at least one more but portable toilets will be used this summer.
There is no running water or power anywhere on site, both of which are a top priority, but will be expensive, Bork said.
“Running water and power is a big item,” he said.
Over time, the borough hopes to add another beach at the motorized lake, a campground, an ATV park and a paintball complex. The south Cushman area has long been a haven for off-road vehicles and they are still allowed on the east and south portions of the rec area.
“We want to accommodate that existing use,” Taylor said. “It’s so ingrained in the culture of south Cushman.”
Likewise, Taylor said, the borough has talked about putting in fire pits near the motorized lake that would be big enough to burn wood pallets
The borough has also talked to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game about the possibility of stocking fish in the two lakes. There are already northern pike in the lakes, Taylor said.
“We’ll find out this summer how it’s actually used and what we need to adjust,” he said. “I’m sure we’ll have a different take on things by the end of the summer.”
Bork said the same thing.
“I’m sure we haven’t even thought of the uses people are going to want,” he said. “If we get a group saying, ‘We’d like to do this and we’re a volunteer group that will help do it,’ we’re going to consider it if it’s within our mission.”
In anticipation of the opening, the borough parks and rec department began conducting night patrols at Tanana Lakes a few weeks ago to get people who frequent the area used to the idea that it will be closed nightly at 11 p.m.
The patrols have helped cut down on the amount of late-night traffic, or as Taylor put it, “helped keep the riff-raff out.” The only recent incident of vandalism came about a month ago when someone shot four holes in the metal roof of the picnic pavilion with a shotgun, an incident that helped precipitate the nightly patrols.
“We haven’t had a car burned in a month,” Bork said. “We haven’t had any of our new signs shot up yet.
“I know that it’s not going to be as seamless as it has been when it opens but it’s been surprisingly quiet out there,” he said.
Once open, the rec area will be open daily from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., he said. There will be two full-time rangers and three or four ranger aides to patrol the area from 2 p.m. to 6 a.m. Barricades or big rocks have been strategically placed to block off unauthorized access points.
While the borough will have a prominent management presence in the rec area, Bork said “we’re not out there to be law enforcement.” Rangers will mostly “correct” people if they are violating the rules and explain what those rules are, he said. There will be some people who don’t like the new rules but that’s inevitable, Bork said.
“We’re not stopping people from doing what they’re doing,” he said. “We’re just stopping them from doing it there. Our message is, ‘You can still do them here, but you can’t do them here after 11 o’clock at night.’ “
The South Cushman area gets a lot of traffic from military personnel and to that end Bork said borough officials will give Fort Wainwright leaders a tour of the area next week to “let them know what the rules are” in an attempt to get word out that the area is now under borough management.
“We’re trying to include them in the process,” Bork said.
He is also trying to arrange a meeting with Alaska State Troopers, since the rec area is out of city limits and troopers will be first responders.
“Now that we’re actually managing it, the bar is raised for us in terms of responsibility,” Taylor said. “We’re trying to make sure it’s safe for the public and easy to manage.