For five years volunteers have been cleaning up an unsightly, overgrown Russian River property once dubbed Liquor Store Beach to turn it into a nature preserve and educational center.

"When I first came here, the blackberries were up in the willows for 40 feet, we measured, and there was a narrow path the width of a person," said Victoria Wikle, project manager for Russian Riverkeeper, a Healdsburg-based environmental group.

On each side of the path were homeless encampments. Drug and alcohol use was widespread and if something went missing in town, the item and usually the culprit could be found there.

"When we took it on, some of the merchants chuckled and said &‘you are going to fix Liquor Store Beach?' It was one of the well-known names in town," said Don McEnhill, Russian Riverkeeper executive director. "We found hypodermic needles and other evidence of drug use and lots of drinking."

The five-acre site, to be called Stewardship Park, borders the Russian River at the entrance to Guerneville, starting at the pedestrian bridge and stretching 440 feet east under the nearby Highway 116 bridge.

Most of the underbrush and trash has been removed, giving the park an open feeling under the redwood, alder, bay and willow trees.

"It is wonderful to have this in town," said Liz Brown of Guerneville, who was walking her dog at the park Wednesday morning. "It was a less friendly place, transients would be down here. I would just not go here."

"It's not some place you would hang out," said Charles Brown of Russian River Realty. "It used to be nasty down there."

For the first half of the 20th Century, the site was a resort with tent cabins for summer visitors, before being wiped out by high floodwaters in the mid 1950s and abandoned, McEnhill said.

In 2005 it was donated to the Russian Riverkeeper by the family of Bay Area businessman Bertram Horne.

"It is a well-located parcel that no one wanted right on the river," McEnhill said. "We decided this is a real hole in the habitat in the river, and in the downtown area on a stretch that doesn't have houses on the river, and we saw opportunity to restore the property and create public access to the river."

Since then, volunteers have been working Wednesday mornings at the site, cleaning up trash, removing non-native plants and planting native ones.

The debris has included plywood, mattresses, piles of rotting garbage and building materials, he said.

"We found the better part of a VW Squareback under the blackberries," McEnhill said.

Riverkeeper has undertaken the renovation with $87,000 in Sonoma County redevelopment funds, $50,000 from the Sonoma County Open Space District to purchase an easement, $210,000 in state funds and is submitting a proposal for another $120,000 in redevelopment funds.

Signs have erected indicating that alcohol has been banned.

"It will flood every five to 10 years, everything we do will be in keeping with that," Wikle said. "We are putting in plants that don't mind being under water for three days at a time."

A plan for the native plants and for an interpretative center, with walks, overlooks and gathering areas, has been designed by Ron Lutsko of San Francisco, who designed the Strybing Arboretum native plant garden in that city.

"We are at the point where our goal is to begin construction this summer," McEnhill said. "We have gotten the majority construction funding in hand, we need to complete the permit process with the Open Space District and the county. We are pretty close.