With car heaters blasting to combat freezing weather early Tuesday, a group of seniors waited and watched the shuttered windows of the University Place senior and community center.
Five minutes before 9 a.m., the blinds were pulled, and the seniors hurried inside to find five empty card tables with chairs.
The scene has played out Tuesday morning for as long as anyone can remember. But this day was different. It was the first time the city-owned building on Grandview Drive West wasn’t opened by a city employee.
As of Dec. 31, the city’s recreation arm—which had operated the center and its programming—ceased operations. The City Council cut the department’s funding in its 2017-18 budget to help fill a $1 million deficit.
Local nonprofit Community Connection Place stepped in at the eleventh hour keep the senior center open. The City Council approved a lease Nov. 21, granting the group use of the facility and its equipment for $1 a month. The organization must cover operation and maintenance costs.
The 17 people playing bridge Tuesday didn’t know much about Community Connection Place. All they cared about was staying in University Place for their Tuesday morning card games.
“We play cards. That’s our thing,” said UP resident Craig Shaw, who has played at the center for “a long time.” Looking around, Shaw said he saw no noticeable changes other than knowing “we’re going to be under new management.”
We hope that we can show the community that we’re here, and we hope they want to come and participate in activities.
Amanda Ellis, secretary, Community Connection Place
To help with the transition, the nonprofit hired Jonie Emrick, who staffed the center for the city and who was set to lose her job at the end of the year. She will head senior programming.
The group’s leaders have no immediate plans to change things at the center, but said that when they do, it will be to add programming or to expand opportunities for people of all ages to use the center.
“It will be nice to have some new ideas, something new for the seniors to try out,” Emrick said.
Center hours are 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday through Friday, with most senior programming ending at 2:30 p.m. Previously the center was closed Mondays.
Popular weekly bridge, pinochle, bingo and domino games will continue, along with Thursday morning art class and the Catholic Community Services free meal at noon Fridays, said nonprofit secretary Amanda Ellis.
The organization is seeking a community partner to restore monthly foot care services, and leaders say they hope to create more partnerships to bring classes and services to the center, she said.
Moving into the city-owned building was a big step for the organization that previously had only a post office box and held meetings at coffee shops.
The nonprofit is “a bit of an unknown” in the community, Ellis said, including among people who campaigned for a voter-approved metropolitan park district to fund recreation. Voters rejected the proposal in April 2016.
“I think a lot of people in our organization aren’t in the same circles as people who have been working on these things in the past,” Ellis said. “We hope that we can show the community that we’re here, and we hope they want to come and participate in activities.”
It will be nice to have some new ideas, something new for the seniors to try out.
Jonie Emrick, Community Connection Place senior programs administrator
The nonprofit’s board includes Ellis, a UP resident, and founder and president Sheila Phillip, who lives and operates a child care center in UP.
Also on the board are Bill White, upper school head and athletics director at Charles Wright Academy; Jaclyn Zieg, an early learning professional; and Constance Trufant, executive director of the Trufant Family Foundation.
Saving senior programming was the first step in growing the nonprofit’s visibility, Phillip said.
“To me, this was an opportunity to show (residents) we want to be here for everybody who is in the community,” she said.
Community Connection Place received a one-year, $50,000 grant from the Milgard family’s Windows of Hope Foundation, money it will use to operate the center and its programming in the coming year, Ellis said.
The group can reassess and apply for additional funding the next year, she said.
The nonprofit’s ultimate goal is to build in University Place a multimillion-dollar community center that would serve as a central gathering place for residents of all ages. Members hope to use a combination of private donations, a public capital fundraising campaign and grants to pay for the center.
Phillip isn’t deterred by the recent rejection of the park district, which would have created a separate taxing district to maintain recreation services in the city of almost 33,000 people.
“It can happen if the community comes together and supports the vision,” she said, citing similar efforts to build community centers in Kingston and Bremerton in Kitsap County.
Phillip and other nonprofit leaders are meeting city and school district officials and leaders outside of University Place to create partnerships and prepare for a public fundraising campaign.
Phillip cited Gary Yazwa, who led major fundraising efforts for the Boys & Girls Club of South Puget Sound, as a mentor.
“He’s an icon, a legacy,” she said of now-retired Yazwa. “He’s known for building communities.”
Phillip’s vision is for a center built in a central location that would offer youth sports, before- and after-school programs, classes for adults, and a chance for seniors to be active as well as interact with children through multigenerational programming and mentorship opportunities.
She anticipates launching the capital fundraising campaign early this year.
Simultaneously, the nonprofit will grow at its current location. That includes looking for community partners and trying to pick up some programs the city previously offered.
“We hope that the people who are really upset by everything, maybe they’ll want to get involved,” Ellis said. “If the city isn’t going to build it for us, let’s do it on our own.”
A ribbon cutting is planned for 10 a.m. Jan. 18 at the senior and community center, 2534 Grandview Drive W., to celebrate Community Connection Place’s new home.
Learn more about the nonprofit, its vision for University Place, how to join and hours of operation for the center at communityconnectionplace.org.