Resort may crowd Mount Rainier

  Ashford, Wash., a rural town of about 1,500 people that is only a stone's toss from the western gate of Mount Rainier National Park, may soon have a big, new neighbor. Earlier this month, Pierce County endorsed plans for a $70 million, 400-acre resort that would more than double the number of housing units in the valley and increase retail space almost tenfold. The size and design of the facility have some locals and environmental groups worried about damage to both the park and the character of the valley.

"It's way oversized for what's there," says Kirk Kirkland of Tahoma Audubon Society.

Under a scaled-back plan that dropped an RV park, Park Junction Partners and the BCB Group from Portland, Ore., want to build a conference center and resort, complete with an 18-hole championship golf course and condominiums. Developer Sylvia Cleaver says the resort's ability to attract conferences will draw people to Mount Rainier and the local area, particularly during the off-season.

"Two million people come to the park a year; 80 percent come during a three-month period," she says. "The park can handle another 500,000 people during the other nine months. If anything, the resort will help the local economy."

That's a fine goal, says local bed-and-breakfast owner Jim Harnish. But he doesn't think the resort has the potential to draw many people during the winter and spring, when rain and snow sock in the western Cascades. He predicts the resort will attract more visitors during the already busy summer months, overwhelming the park's already taxed facilities and siphoning people away from existing businesses.

A hearings commissioner will listen to public comment on the county's approval of the conference center. Tahoma Audubon doesn't think the resort complies with state environmental laws and plans to file an appeal. But if all goes well for Park Junction Partners, construction could begin next spring.

*Ali Macalady

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