ONTARIO — Jessica Keys, field representative and natural resources liaison for U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., stopped in Ontario on her way to Boise on Tuesday afternoon. As Merkley’s field representative for eastern Oregon, she is constantly traveling around her territory, including Malheur County, according to Sarah Hottman, spokeswoman for Merkley. She said Keys is based in Baker City and “is Sen. Merkley’s eyes and ears on the ground in eastern Oregon. His field representatives across the state spend their days out in their territory connecting with folks so they can keep the senator up to date on what’s happening locally.”

Keys was invited by city officials to take a tour of the proposed Tater Tot Trail, which will be alongside a 3-mile stretch of the Snake River, and to learn more about what it will take to complete the project. City Manager Adam Brown, Public Works Director Al Cablay, Community Development Director Dan Cummings, Councilors John Kirby and Eddie Melendrez and Ontario Mayor Riley Hill led Keys on the tour. They went from the proposed trail head, through the city’s water treatment plant and over to a slough near the Snake River Bridge, where a footbridge will be needed in order to get trail users to the other side near Walmart, where they would be able to continue north until the trail’s end near the Ontario State Park by Love’s Travel Stop.

The trailhead starts near an area where Alexander’s on the River, a restaurant, used to be located. The restaurant was destroyed in an arson fire in 1999 and, according to Brown, the city somehow ended up with ownership of the property afteward.

The city manager explained to Keys how the river trail would parallel the city’s proposed water trail, which was previously going to be on the Malheur River. However, after the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality urged the city not to allow recreational activities in the Malheur River, the plan shifted to having the water trail in the Snake River, alongside the proposed foot path. That plan is still in the works, with a study needing to be completed regarding the safety of the rapids.

In considering the trailhead for both the water and river trail, city officials want to protect the wells nearby the water plant. Brown pointed out that a fence would separate trail users from property at the plant, including wells and solar panels, commenting that there was “a lot of green space potential.”

Cummings said that the plan is to eventually have the city’s walking trail route make a complete loop, where users can walk around through the entire city, and to make a water trail route that connects to Nyssa.

‘Trying to think way beyond our lives’

“This deal has set on the books for 30 years,” Hill said, adding that they are looking at getting the funds needed for the project from “every source available.”

Cummings also noted he could recall the addition of a the proposed trail to the city’s master plan “at least 25 to 30 years ago.”

Hill told Keys that bolstering Ontario’s economy is integral as the city is “fighting Idaho,” as far as better land use deals, property taxes and sales taxes.

“Everybody is moving there. …” he said. “So we have to combat our negatives with our positives.”

Hill said this included using commercial property to try to build something that people want to come to Ontario for. Hill mentioned how the city is trying to acquiring another piece of property just for the purpose of making the downtown area “a destination.”

“We’re trying to think way beyond our lives,” Hill said.

This includes providing children with things to do, Brown noted.

Total cost may be about $5 million

The city still has to acquire properties for areas of the path that are owned by other entities, including Walmart and Kraft Heinz, as well as the state of Oregon. Brown estimates that the land action process is about another two to three months out, and stated that as of last week Heinz and Americold were both good with the current agreement.

The state land needed for the trail may take longer, however. Brown noted that it could be “before Christmas before we have all of it.” He did note however that Oregon Parks and Recreation officials noted the state property was the “perfect land” for such a trail, and had talked to the state two year ago, “priming them” about the possibility of having a walking trail go through there.

Once the city has the needed properties, Brown says they will go to the National Parks Service to seek funding for the project. It was later clarified that the funding would only be for the design phase of the trail, which is estimated to be about $750,000. The total cost of the trail is estimated to be about $5 million, Brown noted. However, he added, “we have no idea.” And Hill noted that the cost of materials for construction just keep getting higher. As such, the mayor expects the price tag on the project to keep inching upward the longer it gets pushed out.

“We have big plans if we can find the money,” Hill noted, then stated perhaps they could find funding from social infrastructure funds.

He later explained that the Biden Administration has allocated $1.2 trillion toward such infrastructure, saying “it is a moving target.”

“It’s day care, mental health, stuff to blow a whole lot of money on and in 10 years, you see no results,” Hill said. “Bridges and roads, however, with those you see something for your investment. This project could be one of those.”

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