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River Heritage Center renovation underway

Supporters of the David Yearsley River Heritage Center attended a ceremony on Tuesday, Nov. 13.

John O'Hara/ For the Argus-Courier
Published: Wednesday, November 21, 2012 at 8:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, November 15, 2012 at 5:04 p.m.

On a cool Tuesday morning, a crew began taking down the south-facing wall of the old livery stable at the site of the David Yearsley River Heritage Center, ironically bringing the work in progress a step closer to completion.

It was a key step in a multi-million rehabilitation project aimed at transforming the historic structure into an interpretive center and museum dedicated to educating people about the Petaluma River.

Members of Friends of the Petaluma River watched on happily as the weather-beaten wall came down, knowing that it meant that a new one would soon go up — and faster than many expected.

“It's so significant to that the building is ultimately being preserved and enhanced and used as a river heritage center,” said a pleased Elizabeth Howland, wife of the late river advocate David Yearsley and leader of the Friends of the Petaluma River in an earlier interview.

The more than 100-year-old stable, best recognized by a bright blue “Ghirardelli” sign painted on one wall, has a long history in town. It was built around the turn of the last century and moved to Steamer Landing Park from the northwest corner of D and First streets in 2004 to make way for the Theatre District parking garage.

Once the stable, which is owned by the city, was relocated to its waterfront locale on McNear Peninsula, longtime riverkeeper David Yearsley saw an opportunity to rehabilitate the structure and create a place where Petalumans could learn about and celebrate the history and environment of the river.

The Friends of the Petaluma River assumed responsibility for the stable about three years ago and Yearsley, along with a slew of dedicated volunteers, began fixing it up, replacing the floor and clearing out years of accumulated debris, among other things. Early on, they identified replacing the south-facing wall as a priority to making the structure sound. But doing so, they recognized, required money as well as manpower.

Over the years, Friends of the Petaluma River gathered funds through events like the eclectic, arts-based Rivertown Revival festival. This year, with one dollar out of every $5 entry fee for the festival going specifically to the wall project, $10,000 was raised. In August, the Moonlight Fandango brought in roughly $6,000, thanks to some generous community donations, Howland said.

With some seed money, the group brought in engineers and last spring developed a plan to tear down and replace the wall, then obtained city approval for the project.

Still, the group was short on the funds needed to hire a professional construction crew until it received an unexpected $35,000 donation from Merlone Geier Partners, the developer of the Friedman's shopping center set to be built on North McDowell Boulevard. The donation came as a result of a controversial settlement with a group opposing the project, the Petaluma Neighborhood Association, which had appealed the city's approval of the shopping center.

The settlement, in which the association agreed to drop its appeal of the shopping center in exchange for Merlone Geier donating monies to various projects around town, drew praise from some and criticism from others.

One group named as a recipient of $10,000 in the settlement — Heritage Homes of Petaluma — declined the money, saying that accepting the donation was not in keeping with the group's mission of restoring historic structures.

The River Heritage Center, at the urging of Merlone Geier Partners, accepted the $10,000 that Heritage Homes declined, in addition to another $25,000 it was originally allocated, and appears to be the first to put the funds to use.

“It all fell in place once we found out we were getting the significant donation from Merlone Geier,” Howland said, explaining that architects, construction, and materials have been donated in part for the project.

“The money (from the donation) is already going back into the community,” Howland said, emphasizing that the group hired local companies — Natal Modica, Friedman's and Heritage Salvage — for the supplies and labor.

After the new wall is up, said Howland, other goals include bringing in power and water and taking additional measures to prolong the life of the facility.

The city also has plans to landscape the surrounding area and build a permanent dock, among other things, she said.

The Friends' long term goal for the facility is for it to become an interpretive center where school children and other visitors can come to explore the river.

Howland hopes that teachers will be able to work out of the building and develop programs based around the river. Already, the stable has begun to operate in its capacity as River Heritage Center, with the Friends group hosting activities on a frequent basis. Those include free weekend boat rides that are offered year-round.

Despite the progress, the group must raise millions before the long-term plans for the center can be completed.

Two years ago, the Friends group applied for a $3.3 million grant to fund the project but didn't receive it.

Friends of the Petaluma River would have received about $500,000 from Measure X, a parcel tax to raise funds for parks improvements around Petaluma — but the measure failed by a small margin this November.

Still, Howland remained confident the improvements will ultimately come to fruition with community support.

(Contact Jamie Hansen at jamie.hansen@argus courier.com.)

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