Big growth, bigger heart


Older than the city that calls it home, Frosty's Saloon and Bar is an institution of Napavine life.

The oak bar from 1902 has served up generations of dollar burgers, chicken and jos, and Friday steak dinners. There, you can hear tales of the ghosts who walk the halls (either a logger or a woman in blue depending on who you ask) or the past lives of the bar including a candy store, a barber shop, a brothel and even a place where kids could earn a penny each rounding up stubby beer bottles for the owner.

But mostly, Frosty's is about community. At 9 a.m. Wednesday, a large group of regulars have scootched together a string of tables for a lively game of dice for coffee. Just about every patron who walks through the door is known by name — or nickname — by the waitresses. There are dozens of regulars who stop by every day. In a lot of ways, Frosty's is Napavine.

"It's still a pretty small town," said waitress Terri Canida, who has worked there off and on 11 years. "When you say something, it's around town in about five minutes."

Then there's another symbol of Napavine, which seems to be popping up around town more and more these days. Less than a mile away on Haywire Road, big, yellow construction vehicles stand at the ready to lurch to life in the tilled soil. The bare earth is a stark contrast to the dense thick of evergreens that surrounds it but represents an influx in homes, jobs and residents expected for the small city.

Dave Templeton, owner of Templeton Development, looks over construction plans for the two cleared lots that will soon be home to Parkside Village and Countryside Manor. Locals will start to see more than 70 homes start to take shape within the next two to three months, Templeton said.

"And we have more in our back pockets," Templeton said with a grin. "We'll just have to see how this goes."

A town on the grow

By all measurements, Napavine is growing.

On the population front, the Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington's lists Napavine with 1,328 residents. Public Works Director Steve Ashley said he thinks the number is closer to 1,420. No matter which number is correct, it is known Napavine doubled its population between 1990 and 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Its city council recently approved a plan to again double its population to 3,060 in the next 20 years.

"When I came here, there were 620 people," said Ashley, who joined the city 20 years ago. "But basically, Napavine has kind of been growing rapidly the last eight years or so."

To serve these incoming populations, developments such as Templeton's are popping up on almost every side of town. In all, nearly 170 new homes have already been approved for construction and many more are expected. Templeton said while Napavine is somewhat of an untested market, he expects the gamble to pay off.

"I just liked the area," Templeton said of what drew him to Napavine. "It's a really good place to do what we're doing — nice people, nice town, good schools, beautiful countryside, close to (Interstate 5) — all the things we wanted," Templeton said.

Land mass growth is also planned for Napavine, as the city plans to grow by about 630 acres in the next 20 years. To accomplish this, a proposal was recently made to the Lewis County Community Development Department to add 537 acres to Napavine's Urban Growth Area. The county should answer by November.

Out of a borrowed storefront near the intersection of Washington Avenue and state Highway 603, Robert Wheeler plots out the future of Napavine on a laminated map with multicolored markers. Wheeler is a fairly recent transplant to Napavine who serves as the volunteer economic development coordinator for the city. Part chamber director, part town cheerleader, Wheeler works on everything from annexations to enticing new businesses to Napavine.

The balance, he said, is between welcoming growth and retaining Napavine's unique heritage.

"People here are very proud. They're very defensive of Napavine," Wheeler said. "We're trying to make sure we think ahead and plan carefully."

Railroad town, small town

Napavine's first settlers came in the early 1870s but its success depended on the railroad. Originally Napawyna (like the name of the Funtime Festival queen), it was the intersection of Military Road, the first path through the county, and the Mainline Railroad, which came through in 1878. At 444 feet elevation, it is the highest point on the railroad between Seattle and Portland. In fact, during the days of steam engines, a helper engine was kept in Chehalis should trains chugging toward Napavine need an extra push.

The first year the railroad came through, Jim Carroll's grandparents stepped off the train and homesteaded a plot three miles south of the depot. Today, the family's three-generations in the area are immortalized in Carroll Road off Highway 603. Carroll, the youngest of nine children, remembers when the town had less than 200 residents.

"My mother used to get the job every so often of taking the census for the state and she would do it from the kitchen table," he said with a chuckle.

The city of Napavine incorporated in 1913. The community stayed relatively small. Mayor Rob McNelly has lived in town all his 45 years and said it was always a bucolic, personable place to live.

"When I was a kid, there was about 300 people in town," McNelly said. "I delivered newspapers to the whole city and it took me about two hours. Now I think it would take me two days."

In its younger days, Napavine was a self-contained town with most of the housing clustered around the downtown core and the rest smaller farms on the outskirts. The town had a bank, meat market, pharmacy, post office, mercantile, large train depot and many other amenities — many of which are not present in today's Napavine.

"It was the factories being built in Chehalis and the transportation," Carroll said of what changed the town. "It just became a natural, you wouldn't put a bank in Napavine. People have to go to (Chehalis or Centralia) anyway for groceries and whatnot."

More people traveling outside Napavine for work and services also meant a shift in populations. Carroll is the third generation in his family to live in Napavine and besides his "all expenses-paid tour of Europe" during World War II, he's lived all his 83 years in the city. But his children all left after graduating from high school and live in areas surrounding Seattle.

"There really isn't enough here to hold them after their education," Carroll said.

"There's no jobs to speak of in the greater areas but some stay and work in Chehalis and that area," Crawford said of what he sees of most graduates in Napavine. "But they want to be here. I recently spoke with a graduate who works at Fort Lewis but he lives in Napavine because he wanted to be in this area."

Location, opportunity cause growth

Carroll was a member of the Napavine City Council for an impressive 41 years from 1955 to 1996. During that time, one of the most significant council initiatives he remembers was the decision to build a city water and sewer system. In his mind, that decision nearly 50 years ago set growth into motion.

"That's when the city started to grow, the city government started to grow, when we got utilities," Carroll said.

From a current council perspective, McNelly said he believes an even more historical decision is playing a part in Napavine's growth. Unlike Centralia and Chehalis to the north, Napavine is close to I-5 but not so close it experiences some of the negative impacts of being on the corridor. Also, the majority of the city is at the high elevation that was its claim to fame during the steam engine times, which means the city doesn't experience flooding. Less flooding problems equates to more development opportunities in McNelly's mind.

"We see all the cars driving by on I-5 and see money in their pockets and we want them to pull over and spend that in Napavine," McNelly said.

Though there are still mixed feelings about what its true impacts will be, Sovran Development Group's plan to build a more than 900-acre industrial park between Napavine and Winlock is certainly contributing to the Napavine boom. At the center of the park would be a Cardinal Glass Company plant, which has already begun construction. The $130 million plant is expected to bring as many as 200 jobs to the area.

"Personally, I feel when Cardinal opens, more people will come to Napavine because it's closer to Centralia and Chehalis," Wheeler said. "That's something we need to keep in our mind that people might be coming here.

"I really think it's the quality of life, small town, affordable. I think they come here to build affordable houses," he added. "If you want good streets, if you want more parking… If you want good schools … Napavine is a wonderful community."

While Ashley agreed Cardinal did represent new growth in Napavine, he disagreed it would bring more residents. In his opinion, Cardinal will probably hire about one-third of its workers from others plants and many will choose to commute rather than relocate. He said he believes Cardinal and Sovran are just a sign of a bigger desirability of the area for growth.

"Growth itself is coming," Ashley said. "Thurston County has a moratorium. Kelso and Longview have issues. I think Lewis County, I mean all of Lewis County, is a hot spot right now."

Another sign of the strength of Napavine's growth can be seen sandwiched between Frosty's and Templeton's cleared lots at the Napavine Amphitheater. In 2003, Todd Miekle had a vision for a community amphitheater that was not quite the Gorge but not quite music in the park.

Miekle, also a fairly new transplant to the community, said what has impressed him about Napavine is that it is a small, caring community but willing to try new things. He recalled the council embracing his idea of a burn-out contest at the Funtime Festival, a thunderous event where drag racers squeal their tires, which drew 2,000 people to the berg the first year. Then, when he came to them proposing a Quiet Riot concert, the first step toward the amphitheater, they were anxious but agreed giving younger people something to do was a good idea.

"What's really important is what Napavine is doing for growth of the city and growth of the government," Miekle said.

Today, the amphitheater has become a regional draw. Just this season, it played host to performers such as Billy Currington, The Presidents of the United States of America and Dierks Bentley, the first of what Miekle's hopes will be many sold-out concerts. The amphitheater has become a venue through which many Northwesterners have visited Napavine for the first time. Without exception, Miekle said, they see the same charms that have kept him in the community.

"When people come here they really like it," Miekle said. "I had one couple come to some concerts from Bellevue and they just loved it here. I've stayed in pretty close contact with them and they called Napavine the Bellevue of Lewis County."

Water, schools create growth challenges

Growth may be inevitable for Napavine but its impact on the community is still yet to be seen. Talk of more people brings to mind need for more sewers, water, police, fire protection, streets and other amenities that make up the foundation of the notion of "quality of life." Careful comprehensive planning puts Napavine in a good position to meet these needs, McNelly said.

"We're prepared for the growth," McNelly said. "We've been growing the sewer lines, we've been updating our water system. The only unsettled issue is water rights."

It has been said in Lewis County that whiskey's for drinking and water's for fighting. Nowhere is that better understood than in water-strapped Napavine. According to a 2003 report by the Chehalis Basin Partnership, Napavine has an estimated current water demand of 143.4 acre feet and water rights of up to 168 acre feet. However, in 20 years it is believed Napavine could have a water rights shortfall of 131 acre feet. One acre foot of water is equal to about 325,851 gallons of water.

Foreseeing these deficits, in 1992, Napavine submitted a new application for water rights to the state. But the document has not even been acted upon because the state is not accepting requests for new water rights.

So Napavine turned to plan B. Negotiating with individuals with current water rights over and above their needs, Napavine has submitted three applications for transfer of water rights. City officials' goal is to gain another 400 acre feet of rights in the transfer, which McNelly said would carry the city for decades.

"We're not asking for a new well. We're not asking for new water," Ashley said. "We just need more capacity to pump water."

Ashley said negotiations with the state for the transfer are about 75 percent along. He expects Napavine will have an answer one way or another by the end of this year or early 2006.

The very schools that make Napavine a desirable location are also a consideration for a town experiencing growth. Napavine Schools Superintendent George Crawford said when he started there 17 years ago, the district had 450 students. Today, it has about 720.

"If you look down the road at what we perceive to be the growth here, you can expect we're going to be obligated to house many more kids," Crawford said.

Crawford said he believes strongly small schools make for more successful students. In Napavine, every student and their parents has a "get to know you" meeting with their principal, which ensures all three are aware of their roles and expectations for the school year. Napavine schools are still small enough most classrooms and activities have room for all students. At Napavine Elementary, there are few enough students that one teacher stencils the names of every child who passes all four areas of the WASL under the "WASL Hall of Fame" in the front foyer.

"If we put another 100 kids in our system it's going to become very noticeable," Crawford said. "But the thing is, we already have. And they don't always come in neat little packages like that. We'll have to make it work."

Population, community spirit continue growth

When it comes to what locals think about Napavine's growth, there are certainly supporters and detractors.

Carroll said in 83 years in town, the one constant has always been talk about explosive growth supposedly coming to Napavine. He doesn't buy it. Carroll said he thinks Napavine is growing, but no faster than any other small town in Lewis County and certainly not as quickly as the Twin Cities.

"In later years, we'll probably just become a fringe area of (Chehalis and Centralia)," he said.

At City Hall, officials hear growth concerns ranging from traffic concerns to worries about a growing town costing residents more tax money. Wheeler said part of his job has been to try and allay some of these fears. When he's out talking up an annexation, he touts a tax estimate sheet he said shows it costs about $13 less per $100,000 value of a home for someone to live in the city limits rather than in unincorporated areas.

While no one can predict where development will occur within Napavine, Wheeler said he does have one guarantee for concerned citizens.

"We want to have the ability for developers to develop properties as long as they do a nice job and the subdivisions that we get are very nice," Wheeler said.

Many in Napavine say the numbers showing growth in town are belied by the heartbeat of the community. While many growing cities struggle to retain their identities, Frosty's waitress Melissa Bartley said community festivals and local watering holes still have the small town feel that originally drew her there. When asked how much she thinks Napavine has changed as the population has grown, she was matter-of-fact.

"The town? Not much," Bartley said. "I love this town because it's so quaint and community minded."

Rising property values and more new faces in town prove to Miekle his town is growing. But come Saturday, locals will be lining up to contribute to a benefit concert at the amphitheater and the mayor, looking rather incognito, will be parking cars at the event for no other reason than he likes helping.

Though Napavine may occasionally make headlines because of residents protesting speed limits or certain developments, when it comes right down to it, they pull together when its important, Miekle said. To him, that's the measure of how well Napavine will grow.

"Most places when they lose their desirability is when they become the big city," Miekle said. "When they get to busy to think about what's going on at the Napavine Amphitheater or the Funtime Festival, that's when the community will be too big."