(WSB December photo of West Seattle totem pole in Parks Department possession after recovery in OR)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
No, not back on its home pedestal (35th/Alaska) yet – but a plan is starting to take shape after a meeting Tuesday with the West Seattle Rotarians’ task force and reps from the Parks Department and art-restoration specialists Artech.
The key question is, what needs to be done before the pole is returned to the park from which it was stolen? (No charges yet against the suspect, by the way; the full police narrative – minus names – of how it allegedly happened can be read here.)
Meeting participants agreed that it would be optimal not just to refurbish and reinstall the totem pole, but also to use the opportunity for some improvements to West Seattle Rotary Viewpoint Park, which the club donated to the city more than 30 years ago (Rotary file photo at left).
Parks’ Southwest Division supervisor Cheryl Fraser – who oversees West Seattle – first updated the group on the totem pole’s status. A Parks crew brought it back from Oregon a few days after it was found, and it’s been in the department’s possession since then.
Now, Fraser said, it’s in a locked warehouse at a Parks facility in eastern West Seattle. Some discussion ensued about whether conditions were good for its preservation – a heated warehouse isn’t necessarily the best place for a carved, weathered totem pole, it seems. The other stolen totem pole found in Oregon with the West Seattle pole – the one from Renton’s Fred Meyer store (here’s the story behind it) – is back in its owners’ custody, Fraser said.
What the Parks Department would do about the totem pole if the Rotary Club weren’t involved, she told us, isn’t clear – certainly reinstallation of a stolen totem pole is “an unbudgeted item” as she called it – but it’s a moot point, since the Rotarians are ready to help lead the charge. They were already talking about restoration, reinstallation and some kind of welcome-back ceremony, practically the second the stolen West Seattle pole was found – following the arrest of the suspect, a 69-year-old West Seattle man, who police say told them where to find it.
The Parks Department has some personnel who could work on it, according to Fraser, but not with the expertise level of Artech (featured in this WSB story last month, after getting word they had contacted the city).
But the big question: What needs to be done; how much will it cost; who will pay; and when will it happen?
Parks has given the authorities information on how much it cost them to bring the pole back from Oregon; next, all agreed, would be estimates for how much it would cost to restore and reinstall. “We’re going to go from the expectation, on the club’s end, that they’ll prosecute, that there’ll be restitution, that somebody’s going to make this right,” said Rotary’s Josh Sutton.
Duane Ruud, who along with fellow longtime Rotarian Ken Wise started investigating what happened to the pole even before the theft case was clear (more here), declared that they think the suspect – whom they traced thanks to a tip from someone who noticed the name on the trucks at the scene when the pole-pulling truck got stuck in the mud Nov. 30 – should pay at least $100,000, half for the pole, half for other costs: “Kenny thinks this is a $100,000 pole and if the wrong man had driven by, we would never know where that pole is, it’s just pure luck that a man somewhat connected to a Rotarian was driving by and asked the question, what’s going on here? That pole could just as well have been long gone, never to be seen again. The individual who I hope is going to be charged should pay $100,000 for the pole and $100,000 for what we would like to see done to the park – for being a thief – a different way of life than we believe in – We’ve talked about it and think that’s a price he may have to pay.”
The city has not officially placed a value on the pole itself, according to Fraser.
One possible solution emerged to the problem of whether money should be raised, hoping for reinstitution, vs. waiting for restitution: Applying for a share of the Parks and Green Spaces Levy Opportunity Fund money, potentially to cover the entirety of pole restoration, reinstallation and some work in the surrounding park: “Maybe lighting for the pole, take out some of the view-obstructing trees to the north and replace them with low-growing shrubs …” Sutton suggested, adding that pedestrian paths connecting Rotary Viewpoint Park with surrounding parkland (as has been mentioned in overall discussions of The Triangle to its west) might be on the ideal wish list too.
For pole restoration, some donated labor might come into play – Artech is going to evaluate whether it might be able to offer some services free or at a reduced price, for starters. And a little more of an eyebrow-raiser among the meeting crowd: It was noted that the truck driver hired, allegedly unwittingly, to remove the pole, has volunteered to put it back up for free. (That offer received a skeptical reception at the meeting.) The restoration should be covered by restitution, it was suggested, because if the pole hadn’t been taken down in the theft and transported hundreds of miles, it might not have needed the work – its last touchup was in the early ’90s.
Consensus hasn’t yet emerged on how to pursue money to pay for it, aside from the potential Parks and Green Spaces Levy Opportunity Fund grant. Fraser reiterated that the Parks Department does not have a budget for something like this; Sutton said it might be odd to ask the community for a major fundraising effort, only to have money eventually come through as restitution; Artech’s Roger Waterhouse, though, noted that a fundraising campaign would keep the pole’s plight “in the public eye” while the project proceeds over the coming months. So the first step is figuring out what the full cost would be. A first step toward that was to be taken shortly after Tuesday’s meeting, with the Artech reps joining Fraser to get their first in-person look at the pole.
Another step would be figuring out who will be involved; there was discussion of Robin Young, the pole’s Native American (Cheyenne River Indian Agency) carver, who has told the Rotarians (and us, for this report published last month) that he would like to be involved, at least in the celebration when the pole is finally reinstalled. The question of other Native American involvement was discussed – not only what can be done, but what should be done – Artech’s Waterhouse said that when his company gets involved in restoration projects with this type of art, “We walk really lightly until we find the key person to talk to.” (Though the company is based elsewhere in the metro area, Waterhouse is a West Seattleite.)
One thing’s for sure, the Rotary Club has the energy to lead the effort – and the support (among those who arrived after the meeting began, Earl Cruzen, the West Seattle legend who can be thanked for so much of the area’s public art). Whichever course is chosen, wider public support will be vital – including potentially expressing support for an Opportunity Fund grant to improve the small park as the pole is restored.
“What if we got the grant and work went ahead – then restitution happens?” asked Ruud. Fraser replied by recalling the case of the judge who removed trees in Colman Park, saying that resulted in a half-million-dollar fund “that only gets spent on (that park).” Perhaps, Sutton suggested, any such surplus funding – or anything resulting from a fundraising campaign, that in the end isn’t needed just for restoration/reinstallation/park improvements – could be set aside for future Rotary Viewpoint Park maintenance.
As the meeting ended, the Artech reps were headed over to the Parks Department storage facility for a firsthand look at the totem pole; they planned to give the Rotarians their take on its condition, before they go take a look themselves. After that, decisions can be made on what happens next, including what they’ll be asking for in a letter expressing interest in applying for Opportunity Fund money (the letter of interest is due Feb. 1) – and when; there was much talk about hoping the pole could be reinstalled during good weather this spring or summer, but also realization that its restoration, and potential park improvements, can’t be rushed.
Side note: After the pole was found and that second totem pole with it, Fraser said, Parks did an inventory of similar installations – to make sure nothing else had been stolen and gone unnoticed!
Previous coverage of the totem-pole theft is archived in our Rotary Club of West Seattle category; find those stories here, newest to oldest.