‘Something bad is going to happen,’ but effort aims to make local swimming hole safer

Watch crews install a new dock at Bloedel Donovan Park on Lake Whatcom

Crews install new dock floats Friday, May 18, 2018, at Bloedel Donovan Park on Lake Whatcom. The project is part of a $350,000 overhaul by Bellingham Paks and Recreation.
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Crews install new dock floats Friday, May 18, 2018, at Bloedel Donovan Park on Lake Whatcom. The project is part of a $350,000 overhaul by Bellingham Paks and Recreation.

Saying they want to bring back a cherished swimming dock at Bloedel Donovan Park, members of the Bellingham Bay Rotary Club are pushing to raise the remaining $200,000 needed for the project.

Safety and water access for all children were other reasons for rebuilding the “H” dock, which would cost a total of $500,000, according to chiropractor Eddie Hansen, who is a member of the rotary club.

The goal is to have the swimming dock in place by July or August, provided the rest of the money is raised, Hansen said.

Bellingham Bay Rotary Club also wants to bring back lifeguards.

Called Docks for Kids, the fundraising effort was kicked off with a $75,000 donation from the Bellingham Bay Rotary Foundation.

The City of Bellingham last paid for lifeguards to be at the park — where hundreds gather on hot summer days to picnic and swim in Lake Whatcom — in 2004, and they were removed because of budget cuts. That was at about the same time the old swimming dock was taken out.

Hansen grew up in Bellingham, and some of his memories are of swimming at Bloedel Donovan Park, the old dock and lifeguards.

“That was the common meeting area for all Whatcom County kids,” Hansen said.

And because his mom couldn’t swim, she wouldn’t have taken Hansen to a lake to go swimming that didn’t have lifeguards, and that meant he wouldn’t have been able to go to Bloedel Donovan.

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A rendering of the proposed docks for swimmers at Bloedel Donovan Park. City of Bellingham Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

These days, there’s no place in Whatcom County where children can swim for free and have lifeguards watching over them, he said.

Even places that charge a nominal fee — Hansen mentioned the $4.25 per child at Arne Hanna Aquatic Center — could be too expensive for, as an example, a single mom with four children, he said.

“It’s important that all kids should be able to be around water safely,” Hansen said.

What sparked the idea for this project — the new swim dock would be in the same area as the old one — was seeing kids lining up and jumping from the Electric Avenue bridge into Lake Whatcom below, while motorists were driving by Bloedel Donovan Park.

A nearby sign warns: “Water below is shallow in spots and contains large rocks. A fall, jump or dive may result in serious injury. There are no supervised swimming areas in Bloedel Donovan Park.”

“Something bad is going to happen,” Hansen said.

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Demetre Phinizy, 21, flips off the bridge near Bloedel Donovan Park in Bellingham while friends watch from the water in this July 23, 2013, photo. Staff The Bellingham Herald file

Dock proponents presented their idea to a City Council committee on Oct. 22.

There are no formal agreements with the Bellingham Bay Rotary Club yet, but both sides are working toward the project, according to Leslie Bryson, director the Bellingham Parks and Recreation Department.

“It would be fun for the community,” Bryson said.

The club proposes to raise the money to design, permit and build the dock, which would then be gifted to the city of Bellingham.

“That beach is packed every single day in the summer, because I go swimming there. I know that it is a safety concern and we actually should be moving forward to ensure that we have a lifeguard there,” City Council member Pinky Vargas said at the Oct. 22 presentation.

To City Council member April Barker, the project was part of efforts to provide equitable access to the city’s waterways and waterfront.

The Lake Whatcom Watershed Advisory Committee has recommended approval of the project as has the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, provided there is a feasible plan for ongoing maintenance and staffing.

Ongoing costs for maintenance and staffing are estimated at $50,000 a year.

“We can’t put swim docks back in without having lifeguards,” Bryson said.

Hansen said about $25,000 of the ongoing costs could be paid for by food and equipment rental vendors that he’s helping to bring to the park.

Bryson said the city also may need to dredge the area for safety reasons.

As for the fundraiser, Hansen said he hoped to see donations from a large swath of the community.

“I really want this to be a community-funded project,” Hansen said. “When larger numbers of people in community help support a project, there’s less vandalism and more respect around it.”

To learn more about the project or to donate, go online to docksforkids.org.

Kie Relyea has been a reporter at The Bellingham Herald since 1997 and currently writes about social services and recreation in Whatcom County. She started her career in 1991 as a reporter and editor in Northern California.