Yelm keeps old, grows into new

August 23, 2005 

It’s almost as if Yelm has two downtowns – one an old, quaint testament to the prairie town’s past, the other sleek and modern.

A trip down Yelm Avenue offers mom-and-pop businesses that have been there for decades and clusters of old-fashioned store fronts along First Street.

For compost recipes or advice on growing organic tomatoes, come to Gordon’s Garden Center. The 3 acres of trees, plants, shrubs and tools have been there for 40 years.

Owner Kellie Petersen said it started out as Yelm’s grocery store. The story goes that a customer once asked former owner and founder Gordon Kampfer if he sold cabbage plants; Kampfer said no, but come back tomorrow and it’ll be here. Gradually, the grocery store turned into the garden center that flourishes today.

Tim Larsen, 54, has been dispensing medication at Tim’s Pharmacy for 26 years. He’s been adding scripture to receipts for almost as long.

Mollie McComb, 17, bowls at the eight-lane alley Prairie Lanes. She’s competing against her grandmother, Elizabeth Macey, who is from Orange County, Calif.

Grandma says there’s no place like it back home.

“There’s nothing this small-town and cozy,” Macey said.

Dale Jackson, 84, has been running his mini bowling alley for 37 years.

“I don’t think the community could handle anything bigger,” he said.

For places to eat, McComb recommends Mr. Doug’s, the Espresso Connection and Toscano’s, where she and friends went for prom.

“Very yummy,” she said.

For drinks, there’s Mikey’s Pub, Jennee’s Bar and Grill and the Pit Stop Pub – not recommend by the minor, of course.

A few blocks away, the modern retail center Prairie Park is emerging from what was once open space and farmland. There’s the Yelm Timberland Library, the local newspaper the Nisqually Valley News and Yelm Cinemas – the popular movie theater that attracts audiences from all over the Puget Sound area.

Dominique Thoma, 36, of Roy works on some art work with her kids, ages 8 and 13, at Color Me Mine, a chain paint-your-own ceramics shop. She chooses to go to Yelm for all her shopping, although she could go to Spanaway. “Yelm is just a clean, quiet town,” she said.

The nearby Safeway, Subway and Dairy Queen are an odd juxtaposition to the old downtown. But many residents say they’d rather do their shopping locally, and these services are needed to keep up with growth.

Yelm is Thurston County’s fastest growing city, and 330 newcomers moved there last year alone.

Not everyone’s thrilled with the growth. A battle of old versus new rages over a Wal-Mart that’s scheduled to settle on 17 acres just off of the main strip.

Then there’s traffic. Visit Yelm after 3 p.m., and you’ll likely get stuck in the stream of congestion that’s a constant on the two-lane strip. Right around 5 p.m., no one’s moving.

“People are afraid to get off the road to shop because it’s so difficult to get back on,” Petersen said.

The city is eagerly awaiting a highway bypass, the new 510/507 Loop intended to clear up traffic congestion that has plagued Yelm for more than a decade.

“I love it here, but I want a new freeway,” Thoma said.


Incorporated: 1925

Population: 4,455

Population growth in last year: 330

Number of businesses: 316

Source: City of Yelm

Angie Leventis: 253-597-8692

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