Home Goodbye asphalt, hello open space: Waynesboro begins work on South River Preserve
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Goodbye asphalt, hello open space: Waynesboro begins work on South River Preserve

Crystal Graham
south river preserve
Plans for the South River Preserve project, sketch courtesy City of Waynesboro

Asphalt is being removed to make room in Waynesboro for a 26-acre park along the banks of the South River in Constitution Park.

The plans for the South River Preserve improve in-stream habitats, create fishing access points and a river theater and add pollinator gardens and trees as well as a meandering trail throughout native plants and gardens. The project should be completed by June 1, 2024.

Waynesboro was ground zero for mercury contamination from DuPont for decades and received $2.6 million in funding from the DuPont-Waynesboro Natural Resources Damage Assessment and Restoration, or NRDAR, settlement fund. Additional stormwater local assistance funds, or SLAF, were obtained so that together, the funds could transform the South River, its banks and the areas surrounding both.

“I am so excited for our community as we begin to realize the transformation of our downtown riverfront,” said Waynesboro City Council member Terry Short, who was instrumental in securing funding for the city. “With all of the investments that are made in and for a city, few are as impactful or lasting as the reclamation of open space.”

The project will include improvements to the eastern and western side of the river – with a goal to improve the overall health of the South River and its inhabitants and to replace asphalt with green space. There are also plans for an ADA fishing platform.

The project went out to bid earlier this year, and the cost was more than the city had budgeted for the project. In order to get the costs down, Stephanie Seltzer, who serves as project manager with the Waynesboro Parks and Recreation Department, said they had to reduce the density of some of the plantings and remove some of the standalone meadows planned for the park. They are working now to secure another grant to add those items back to the project by fall planting season.

Summit Environmental Services was selected as the contractor, and the company is no stranger to Waynesboro. The company has done stream-bank restorations previously so “they’re very familiar with the river. They’re very familiar with the work. They’re very familiar with the area,” Seltzer said.

As part of the project, the existing greenway is closed in the Constitution Park area where construction is taking place. Seltzer said that the portions of the South River Greenway that are closed now may reopen while some of the work is still happening if they can do so safely.

When the project is complete, the Greenway will be rerouted so “it meanders a little bit more through the new forested and meadow area,” Seltzer said. “It should really change the feeling that you get when you’re walking through that kind of industrial wasteland that you have now to this gorgeous, lush vegetation.

“It’s not going to be a lavish garden right from the get-go,” she said. “But we should see over the next several seasons, once the plants are installed and continue to grow and fill in, it will become a really nice habitat area attracting birds and insects, butterflies and all those sort of things.”

south river preserve theater
River theater design, image courtesy City of Waynesboro

The river theater will give people the ability to get closer to the river surface to wade into the water and splash. There will also be official access points along the river for those who like to fish which should help eliminate foot paths, which add to erosion issues in the river.

Seltzer said the improvements are a win-win for fellow citizens and visitors to the area who will have a chance to experience the plants and animals that will be part of improving the habitat – instead of seeing an overgrown blacktop area – focusing the city’s identity along the South River.

“You’re going to get a different feel and idea of what Waynesboro is when you’re looking out over a lush meadow, and you see butterflies, and you hear birds chirping and singing and nesting,” she said.

Short sees the South River Preserve project as a catalyst for all that is to come along the South River.

“This project sets the stage for the work ahead,” Short said. “With the addition of the Virginia Museum of Natural History just steps away, our downtown and riverfront will soon experience its largest investment ever.

“The South Preserve project will benefit not only our community, and the generations that follow, but will serve and benefit all that visit our beautiful city,” he said.

Waynesboro certainly seems to be gaining momentum. In addition to the South River Preserve project, the city is also working to open Sunset Park as a place for the community to gather; and add another mile or so to the South River Greenway, extending the trail from North Park to Basic Park.

“These projects are not new,” Seltzer said. “They’ve been talked about in Council and in different departments for a number of years – 10, 15, 20 years – and now, all of the sudden, they’re all coming online, very close to the same time. It’s very exciting.

“With these various improvements, you can walk the Greenway and see the river and be close to the river and hear the river, and you can have a meadow space beside the river that’s not an asphalt parking lot,” she said. “I really think it will solidify Waynesboro’s place as an outdoor community that people will want to come and visit and want to come and live here.”

Seltzer said the improvements should have a direct impact on the city’s tourism income giving people more reasons to come and spend money – spending the night, taking in a show at the Wayne Theatre, eating downtown, “all of these things that have been the goal of our city for so long.”

“It’s definitely an exciting time,” Seltzer said. “2024 is gonna be a big year for getting out and about and seeing some different spaces here in town.”

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Crystal Graham

Crystal Graham

Crystal Abbe Graham is the regional editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1999 graduate of Virginia Tech, she has worked for nearly 25 years as a reporter and editor for several Virginia publications, written a book, and garnered more than a dozen Virginia Press Association awards for writing and graphic design. She was the co-host of "Viewpoints," a weekly TV news show, and co-host of Virginia Tonight, a nightly TV news show. Her work on "Virginia Tonight" earned her a national Telly award for excellence in television.