With a snip of a red ribbon and a turning of dirt with eight golden shovels, the visions of two parents and a defender of coastal waterways came together for a common goal on June 1, as the Betabel Road project will begin construction June 2 on the first phase, a produce stand, mercantile and outdoor restrooms that will be completed in seven months.
In addition to the first phase construction, the entire project will consist of a visitor center, a produce stand, a gas station, a restaurant and a hotel. Rider McDowell told BenitoLink the project would create several million dollars in tax revenue but did not provide specifics.
The rest stop had its challenges as a group of local residents formed Preserve Our Rural Communities in an attempt to oppose development of four properties, including the Betabel Road project, identified in the 2035 San Benito County General Plan as commercial nodes. The General Plan is meant to serve as the county’s blueprint for development.
Herman Garcia, is an indefatigable environmentalist who has taken on high-ranking state officials and even enlisted the support of former President Trump on behalf of river cleanups and the return of steelhead trout. He will continue to be involved in the project with walking paths, gardening projects and classes on nature. McDowell is an off-Broadway playwright and fiction author. Garcia, Rider and Victoria McDowell are united in the hope that the Betabel Road Charity, as it is now called, will simultaneously clean up and beautify the unique property and help fund a possible breakthrough in pediatric brain cancer treatment.
The McDowells also own Pine Brothers Cough Drops, which are made in San Benito County at Marich Candies. They previously owned Airborne vitamin supplements.
After buying the 120 acres along the western side of Highway 101 north of Route 129, McDowell literally turned over the keys to the property to Garcia in 2019 to develop it as an environmentally focused commercial property in which all profits would be directed toward pediatric brain cancer research. As a preemptive move, Garcia and volunteers with his nonprofit Coastal Habitat Education and Environmental Restoration (CHEER) began cleaning up the San Benito River where it crosses the property.
McDowell, who lives in Pebble Beach, said he and Victoria drove their son, Errol, three times a week for six years to San Francisco to get treatment for Medulloblastoma brain cancer. Errol was the one who noticed the land and imagined its potential as they drove through San Benito County.
Errol was 18 when he died at home on June 13, 2018, but not before implanting the idea of the roadside rest stop in his dad’s mind and raising a $1 million through his nonprofit Cancer-A-Gogo for cancer research.
“It was his vision to put something here,” Rider McDowell said. “So, we decided to acquire the property to put something like an old-time roadside rest stop. Today, we’re celebrating the building of the big farm stand, circa 1940s.”
Garcia, said 29 of the 120 acres will be used for commercial development, and that the groundbreaking was for the first phase consisting of a produce stand and mercantile building.
He also said that because of the partnership McDowell gave CHEER access to the area where the San Benito and Pajaro Rivers cross to conduct reclamation operations.
“After 18 months we finally got steelhead back into the system as of last July,” he said. “I don’t know how far upriver they went, but we found them right on this side [west] of the 101. We got a great video of them and sent it to NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] scientists, and they confirmed that they were steelhead. They’re native fish with their own genetic strain that you only find here in this watershed.”
Brent Wilcox, general superintendent for Ausonio, a Castroville-based general contractor, said excavation would begin June 2 and estimated the building would be completed in six months. Henry Rhunke, with WR&D Architects in Monterey, designed the mercantile building. He said the overall design for the project is to take a nostalgic look back to roadside rest stops from the 1940s or 50s. He said the gas station, restaurant and hotel will not be part of large chains, but stand-alone projects.
McDowell told the crowd who came to be a part of the groundbreaking that it was a “bittersweet moment” as it is a reminder of his son’s dream.
“This was Errol’s inspiration,” he said, adding that his son’s idea was to have something beautiful to see when entering the county, but it would also raise tax dollars and provide more than 200 jobs while raising money for pediatric brain cancer research.
“It was our hobby, looking at old-fashioned restaurants,” he said.” We have a collection of old books on old restaurants. When we met Herman, he became an ally and big brother, and he’s been very supportive.”
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