Monday, March 4, 2024

Sutherland, the Town, and The Tumwater Twister

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John Sutherland, the sixty-year-old developer of the controversial new Tumwater Twister in Leavenworth, was eight when his mother first put him on a roller coaster—a rickety wooden affair in the 1960s in Maryland. At the start, “It kind of freaked me out,” Sutherland said. “I was basically shaking for a minute and a half.” Then the ride stopped, and he found himself thinking, “That was cool. Let me do it again!”

Sutherland was reluctant to share much at first. But he was willing to sketch an outline of his life, and a subtle thread came into view: for over a decade, he worked as a ski instructor and area manager at Snoqualmie Pass, where he also started the state’s first commercial mountain biking park; he relocated to West Seattle for a romantic partner; then, after a stint in hospital administration, he began producing theater, which he explained was fun and also “a great way to lose a lot of money.” Sutherland, it seems, is enchanted with love.

And his love for coasters, in particular, never died. “They always fascinated me,” said Sutherland, “Where some people see monstrosity, I see circles, lines, and how it all flows down the hill…I think they’re beautiful structures.”

 In 2003, Sutherland and six friends from a group called American Coaster Enthusiasts set a Guinness World Record for the greatest number of roller coasters ridden in a twenty-four-hour period (forty across eight parks). At around the same time, Sutherland started dreaming about building a coaster of his own. He spent a few years developing a theme park in Lakewood, just outside Seattle, but financing fell through. In 2007, he bid for a similar project at Whistler Blackcomb, but in the end, his coaster dreams were dashed once again (“A Canadian won… how weird…” he said, laughing).

Throughout these years, Sutherland found himself spending more time in Leavenworth, a town nestled at the base of a canyon formed by sprawling Cascade ridgelines eight thousand feet high. Alpine lakes dot the mountain tops which are packed with snow in the winter, flush orange with larches in the fall, and stream into the Wenatchee River running all year long. And at one end of this mile-long town, facing Tumwater Canyon and Icicle Ridge, Sutherland found a ten-acre parcel of land—a hill, really—which had been for sale for over a decade. The owners had planned to build a Bavarian castle resort, complete with gondola (“I still have the designs if you want to see” said Sutherland) but they too fumbled with financing. Sutherland saw an opportunity and brought it to a business partner, his former boss from his ski area days.

 In 2017, Sutherland proposed their Adventure Park plans to the city. Public opposition to building a coaster at one of two entrances into the city was so strong that permit hearings moved from City Hall to the Festhalle, the Bavarian themed event space normally reserved for community-wide gatherings such as Oktoberfest.

 During the permitting process about two dozen articles and letters covering the Adventure Park appeared in this newspaper, with headlines like “Adventure Park Concerns Peak,” “Just Say No to the Adventure Park,” and (in all caps, no emphasis added) “ADVENTURE PARK - GREAT IDEA - WRONG LOCATION.” Residents felt the Park’s tall coaster was a clear and unnecessary capitalist exploitation of Leavenworth’s natural beauty. A citizen’s group called Friends of Leavenworth formed and fought the permit on the grounds of unaddressed traffic, environmental, light, and noise concerns.

Sutherland described the public permitting process as “pretty grueling.” Even after approval, he faced multiple appeals which began with the County Public Examiner and finally ended with the Chelan County Superior Court.

“It wasn’t easy, especially for me,” he said, “because I’m sensitive.” But Sutherland says he did his best to accommodate public concerns throughout planning and construction. He went out of his way to make the park the only business in town that qualifies as dark-sky compliant—meeting an international standard requiring special light fixtures and temperatures to minimize light pollution. The Adventure Park would become one of the only Leavenworth businesses without live music. And he actively worked with neighboring businesses to lessen the forecasted burden of parking and traffic.

Construction, which stalled from the pandemic, ultimately broke ground in 2021 and involved building a twenty-seven-foot-tall outdoor climbing wall, bungee cable trampoline, and of course, a three-thousand-foot-long alpine coaster with a two-hundred-foot drop. Sutherland says he and his team spent most of the six million dollars in development money with Leavenworth-area contractors—hiring outside only when an agency required him to do so. He also staffed the park with locals, paying higher than standard wages (a manager displaced from a recently closed bakery now helps the Park keep food and beverage ordering local too). And for continued support of the community, Sutherland planned to host benefit nights every quarter for local nonprofits.

Finally, six years after planning and construction began, on June 1, 2023 at three in the afternoon, Leavenworth Adventure Park had its grand opening. At the ribbon cutting ceremony that day, Sutherland wore a bright orange polo with “Adventure Guide” in gray lettering—the staff uniform—and stood facing a crowd of families, staff, and investors. At his back were the new three-story park building, the Tumwater Twister coaster, the namesake Tumwater Canyon, and the Pacific Cascade Mountains. He held onto his mic and attempted to form his first word, but his voice cracked. Sutherland choked back tears and wrestled his face from frowning while he stumbled through his first sentence: “Sorry, this always happens.”

After his speech and the ribbon cutting, Sutherland led a procession of the first official twenty riders up the stairs to the Twister’s starting gate (each rider had bid for their seat at an auction, which raised a couple thousand dollars for Cascade High School). I followed them up to the second floor with my guest, a skeptical local who grew up in Leavenworth and hence prefers to remain anonymous. We leaned against the railing and looked down at the grand opening crowd. I asked what they thought. They imagined bringing their nieces and nephews here and were glad to see something people could do in town besides just eat and get drunk. To their surprise, they said, “it’s actually kind of nice.”

I caught up with Sutherland a week later on the top floor of the new eight-thousand-square-foot Guest Services Center, where large windows look out toward the Canyon and the Twister. The park was closed that day, and the building was empty. Sutherland told me he hopes the Park will make enough money to pay back investors but has no plans to move away from Leavenworth regardless. Everything he loves is here—recreation and arts sure, but also the town’s history.

“It makes me feel comfortable,” he said, referring to the story of Ted Price and Bob Rodgers, the World War II veterans who fell in love with the area’s gorgeous scenery and helped mold a small destitute town into a thriving Bavarian-themed attraction. “It’s an amazing story. This couple that was together for fifty-eight years…It was 1960...” He laughed and continued more seriously, “Knowing what that must have been like at that point in time, to be in love and live together that way, but to have to be quiet and to have that pressure.” He paused, “It’s not easy. And the pressure still hasn’t one hundred percent gone away, right?”

He asked if I had read a book called Miracle Town, about the founding of modern Leavenworth. “I want to turn it into a musical,” he said, confessing he had already begun reaching out to composers. “The last of my money, by the way, is in this project,” he said, referring to the Adventure Park. “If it doesn’t work, I’ll work at Starbucks I guess.”

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