A project that has been talked about in Bath for at least a decade is getting closer to becoming a reality. Early this spring, the Bath City Council gave the green light to city planners to finalize the design of and start the permitting process for a public park and pathway system along the Kennebec River to be completed in the next two to three years.
“As people now turn towards the river more and more often, we want to provide them with opportunities to access the water and this is a way to do that,” said Andrew Deci, Bath’s planner.
The proposed river walk of just under half a mile runs from the visitor information center by the railroad tracks south of downtown, connects to Waterfront Park and extends beyond the park behind BathPort and the Kennebec Tavern to end at the Bath RiverWalk Residences, a condominium project currently under construction, north of downtown.
“We have this overarching idea of trying to draw people from the visitor’s center, engage them with the river, and bring them into the downtown,” Deci said. “Making this improvement, as well as some preplanned sidewalk work along Commercial Street, will help provide physical connectivity, but also improve the aesthetics.”
The designs for the river walk are currently in the conceptual stage, but are taking their cue from the look and design of Waterfront Park. Currently, the designs include a parking lot under the bridge; branded wayfinding signs; creative landscaping to create “rooms” for special places such as a memorial to the bridges spanning the river; public art; benches and seating; a labyrinth; and structural elements, such as pavers serving as an outdoor game board, to engage users of all ages.
Deci expects the river walk project to cost an estimated $1.75 million to $2 million that will be funded by bonds and other financing the city can apply for. “As it’s designed and as it’s budgeted right now,” he said, “there won’t be any impact to real estate property taxes and the tax payer.”
The city has been working with property owners along the proposed river walk, including Dustin Slocum, the new owner of BathPort, a residential/commercial building on the river front, and JHR Development, the company constructing the condominiums.
“We’re lucky that we have property owners who are interested in providing us the easement and the access,” said Deci. “I’m hopeful that this trail has an opportunity to provide new opportunities to these property owners.”
Dustin Slocum, who became the new owner of BathPort four months ago, is hopeful, too. He has seen how other communities have benefitted from similar projects. “I think it will certainly benefit any business in my building or any businesses downtown,” he said.
Jake Korb, director of Main Street Bath, is also encouraged by what he’s seen of the conceptual plans for the river walk. Bath’s waterfront, he said, is almost underutilized now, so having a public walk along the river will draw people in. “To be able to walk along that space will be really enjoyable, not just for visitors. I think it’ll be great for people who live here.”
One coastal community that has recently created a similar project is Belfast. Like in Bath, the city of Belfast’s Harbor Walk was a long time in the works. In 2011, after years of talking about it, the city funded the project, which opened to the public in 2013.
“People wanted to do it because it’s always been recognized that it would be such a great addition to our community,” said Kathleen Coleman, office manager of the Belfast Area Chamber of Commerce.
The 1.5-mile Harbor Walk, which cost Belfast a reported $1.5 million, has become an asset to the city, used by visitors and residents alike, even in the winter, Coleman said. Visitors stopping at the visitor information center praise the Harbor Walk and new visitors report that past visitors recommended a stop in Belfast because of the Harbor Walk, she said.
“Belfast has been a city that’s been transforming and reinvented itself and this is just one of the visions and steps in that process,” Coleman said. “It brings people down to the waterfront and down through the harbor. I think it’s helped with our businesses and commerce because it gets people down there.”
Bath, like Belfast, is in the midst of a transformation, said Deci, the city planner. And the river walk, which came out of public comments and ideas as part of the creation of the city’s 2009 comprehensive plan, is a big part of that. “There’s a lot of things happening and changing in Bath right now,” he said. “All of them are good. In three years, when we are able to unveil this, we’ll also have a new viaduct and improvements along the Route 1 corridor. We’re in a formative period.”