Seaside just made it easier for residents and visitors to use beach wheelchairs for those experiencing mobility disabilities.

After a $9,000 grant from Travel Oregon, the Sunset Empire Park and Recreation District purchased and installed the weatherproof beach wheelchair lockers in downtown Seaside, which debuted Wednesday, Aug. 7.

The beach wheelchair program offers wheelchairs to the disabled at no cost.

“This is one big step for accessibility for everyone at the beach,” Mayor Jay Barber said as he wielded the ceremonial scissors, unveiling three new storage lockers in the city parking lot near Oceanway, designed to hold three beach wheelchairs. Users can stow their own wheelchairs when using the specially adapted models with fat balloon tires to provide easy access and mobility on the sand,

The program, inspired by a similar program initiated in 2017 in Cannon Beach, came to the district via Seaside’s Randy Anderson, who began discussions with the district. Patrick Duhachek, owner of Wheel Fun Rentals agreed to donate two wheelchairs.

In addition, Anderson gave the district a heavy-duty beach wheelchair designed to carry weight of up to 350 pounds.

“Wheel Fun had two beach wheelchairs that they had been renting out for visitors,” said Sunset Empire Park and Recreation District’s Darren Gooch at Wednesday’s ribbon-cutting. “Randy’s vision was to somehow make those free and available to folks who come to town, or even our own residents.”

The beach wheelchairs had been stored at the Bob Chisholm Community Center, east of U.S. Highway 101 on Avenue A, and out of distance for users.

Gooch said the district receives about 20 phone calls a day about wheelchair rental, but only about half of those interested had the capacity to bring them from the rec district’s Bob Chisholm Center or Sunset Pool to the beach.

The city’s Public Works Director Dale McDowell started the grant process, delivering his application only two days before the deadline. “The next word was we were awarded the grant and we were all smiling,” McDowell said. “This was an ideal location because we did have the room. It’s centrally located to where people will park, handicapped stalls, nice wide sidewalks and restrooms.”

The storage units came in boxes “about 8 inches tall,” McDowell said, with assembly by the street department’s Jeremy Strimple, Matt Long and Scott Hanna.

Users reserve the wheelchairs for four-hour periods. Using a locker key, those with disabilities can head up Oceanway to the Prom, then south toward Avenue A beach access.

Gooch said he hears heartwarming tales was the first time they’d ever seen the ocean, we have a 7-year-old daughter who was disabled and can’t walk, he said it was “absolutely a godsend.” “We get those stories all the time,” Gooch said. “I can’t count on two hands the times people have called back and said ‘thank you,’ and sharing their experience, which is fantastic.”

The Travel Oregon grant covered $9,000 for the storage lockers, McDowell said. With permits and other fees, the total slightly exceeded that, with the rec district coming up with about $500 in additional costs.

Anderson, who put the program in motion, said he didn’t envision the program taking off as he has. “It’s been a good collaboration between us and the city and Park and Rec,” Anderson said. “In June alone, the chairs were checked out 65 times. That’s just amazing. It tells me the need is there, and it’s been there a long time.”

Visitors are “really grateful” for the opportunity to access the beach, Anderson said. “They’ve wanted to do this for years. All ages from young children to older people. And everybody in between. It’s an amazing experience.”

The demand is already high, Gooch said. “Wheelchair No. 1 is already out in the next few minutes,” he said. “No. 2 will go out at 4 p.m.”

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