Originally published in The Union newspaper March 15, 2014
It’s been eight years since Mike Miller helped build the Empire Mine State Park’s “adit” project — more recently known as a $3.5 million “hole in the ground” — but it was just this week that the owner of the Original Sixteen to One Mine, whose team blasted the 850-foot long “tourist tunnel” at Empire Mine, went public regarding his frustration with the California Department of Parks and Recreation.
Miller said Wednesday that when he and his crew left the project in 2006, “That baby was ready to go.” But as The Union first reported in early December, and what was confirmed in February, the state parks department has decided to pull the plug on the project.
State Parks Director Ret. Maj. Gen. Anthony L. Jackson said in a Feb. 4 letter that the decision was based on two letters from the California State Fire Marshal’s Office, which referenced safety concerns, including referring to an “un-conservative design” used on the shaft structure and to an “advanced corrosion rate of steel beams.”
It should be noted that among Miller’s claims in Thursday’s The Union was that his crew was ordered by the state to make a series of safety adjustments — including changing all the structural supports from wood to steel, which had corroded to the point of causing safety concerns that closed down the project.
Was there no oversight by the state as the project was being constructed?
In February, state parks officials told the Sacramento Bee that though they believe it “could cost $1.4 million or more to make repairs, plus untold amounts in long-term maintenance,” the state had no plans to press forward with any additional work on the adit project.
“We just did not feel it was the wisest decision to spend additional dollars on a project where we didn’t know where the end was,” Chief Deputy Parks Director Aaron Robertson told the Bee.
Why would the state not want to know where the potential “end” might be, by at the very least looking into the actual cost of repairs before walking away from the $3.5 million in taxpayer funding, along with the countless hours of volunteer work by hundreds of residents? Doesn’t the state parks department at the very least owe those who labored over the project that much?
After all, this is the same agency still reeling from revelations it hid $20 million in a secret reserve fund at the same time it was claiming that state budget cuts were forcing it to close as many as 70 parks, leading local leaders and school children to canvas our community for signatures seeking to keep open their beloved South Yuba State Park.
In January, Gov. Brown’s budget called for a $40 million boost to the state parks’ efforts to deal with a “deferred maintenance” backlog — including $1.2 million over the next two years to restore the covered bridge at Bridgeport — as well $14 million to maintain current service levels to avoid closure of additional state parks.
Empire Mine was not one of the state parks among the 70 slated for closure in 2011 as it is a revenue-producing park, one that would likely have helped raise more revenue with the opening of the adit project that promised a unique experience in an underground gold-mine tour. For a community that largely depends on tourism revenue, a great deal of which stems from the Gold Rush history in our area, the state’s decision to halt the project could cost western Nevada County more than the $3.5 million already spent on it.
There are also a couple of other western Nevada County projects, including one on the South Yuba, that the state has deemed necessary due to safety concerns but has yet to step forward with the funding to make them happen.
Although the governor’s budget includes $1.2 million to repair the Bridgeport bridge, just $318,000 is proposed for 2014-15, which would include work to “stabilize” the project and not necessarily result in the removal of the chain link and barbed-wire fence that has blocked access to the bridge since 2011. Perhaps had the state parks not stowed away that $20 million in its secret reserve and not deferred maintenance on such state parks’ property, the bridge might have actually been accessible for its 150th anniversary celebration in 2012.
A local “Save Our Bridge” coalition of 16 area groups is encouraging members of the community to write state legislators and members of budget committees to encourage the release of the budgeted funding earlier than planned in hopes of avoiding any further deterioration of the bridge that could result in a devastating collapse of the structure.
State officials also put the future of the Nevada County courthouse on uncertain ground in 2009, as the Administrative Office of the Courts determined it “unsafe, substandard, overcrowded and functionally deficient.” But since that determination, the building remains in use — and likely will remain that way for the foreseeable future as more than $5 billion in funding originally planned for statewide courthouse construction projects was instead borrowed and swept into the state’s general fund or redirected to court operations.
Meanwhile, Nevada City officials are forging ahead with plans to fund a feasibility study on potential renovation of the courthouse in order to help the project be ready to move forward if and when state funding for courthouse construction projects is returned.
Although not directly related, all three aforementioned projects do share the common theme of western Nevada County residents pulling together at the local level to help make these improvements a reality. But why do we still lack substantial support from the state level, where the projects were actually deemed necessary due to public safety concerns?
Considering it is an election year, that might be good question to pose to those who seek to represent you in Sacramento.
Our View represents the opinions of The Union editorial board, which is comprised of members of The Union staff, as well as informed members of the community.