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$32 million community center brings pool, recording studio, cafe to Tacoma’s East Side

Tacoma’s new Eastside Community Center is so much more than a gym.

There’s the cafe, feet from the front door. The recording studio is down the hallway. And a slide whisks visitors to the lower level, where they find a pool with amenities that rival water parks.

Those features and more transfixed and thrilled visitors to Metro Parks Tacoma’s $32.7 million center on Portland Avenue and East 56th Street when it opened Saturday.

After a parade and ribbon cutting, a crowd of around 2,500 streamed into the building. Kids lined up for the slide. Other youth played basketball in the gym, oblivious to the dignitaries speaking nearby.

Some of the older youth in attendance seemed almost in awe. Not just by the building itself but because they had helped make it a reality during a seven-year quest.

“I don’t think I could have fathomed the reality back then,” said Matthew Trinh, 25. “Everything was closing down about that time. I didn’t know if people in politics would really believe and stand behind something like this. I didn’t know if they cared.”


What makes the center unusual is how it came to be.

The kids who explored the building Saturday were too young to know who Billy Ray Shirley III was.

To those who knew him, Billy Ray remains forever 17.

He was killed at an after-hours party in the Nalley Valley in 2011. He was there only to give someone a ride home. After a fight broke out and ended the party, he and a friend retrieved another buddy and were leaving when someone came up behind them and opened fire. Shirley was shot in the back and died.

He’d grown up on the East Side, a place bereft of safe, healthy hangouts for young people.

He had often talked about the need for such a place with his mother, Shalisa Hayes.

“There was no place for kids on the East Side to go,” she recalled earlier this month. “He said the kids are hanging out on the streets and playing in the streets.”

The friends who played street ball with Shirley, who laughed at his jokes and scraped their knees with him, are adults now. Trinh is one of them.

“I just know how Billy was growing up,” Trinh said. “If he was still here, he would have made something great happen.”

Shirley’s senseless killing galvanized his mother, his friends, his community and finally the institutions dedicated to serving them to build the 55,000-square-foot center.

“We spoke it into existence,” Hayes said.

“Kids growing up today will never know what it’s like not to have a place to go and to grow up in a place that seems like nobody cares,” City Councilwoman Catherine Ushka said. “And we can’t quantify the value of that.”


The Eastside Community Center is the result of what happens when officials listen to community members, say those who designed it.

The centerpiece of the building, a 318,000-gallon swimming pool, has lap lanes, a water slide, zip line, diving board, vortex pool, climbing wall, log roll and hot tub.

The center also has:

Basketball court.

Recording studio.

Training kitchen.

Meeting and classrooms.

Social hall.

Locker rooms.

Fitness areas.

Dance room.

Coffee shop.

The recording studio will allow residents to produce music of professional quality in their own neighborhood.

The exercise areas have aerobic and weight machines and will offer fitness classes. Dance classes will range from ballet to hip hop.

The gymnasium is ringed by a running track on the second floor.

The cafe is being run by Metronome Coffee, whose other restaurant is at Union and Sixth avenues.

The 1181 square foot training kitchen resembles a commercial kitchen and will have classes ranging from healthy eating to ethnic cultures.

The social hall can hold 525 people and has views of forest and wetlands just outside its windows. It’s available for weddings, meeting and other events.

While the new center is focused on youth, it will serve the entire community, including seniors.

The Boys and Girls Club of South Puget Sound will share the building. Participating kids, ages 6-18, will enter the building through their own dedicated entrance and check in on the ground floor.

“The Boys and Girls Club couldn’t build something like this,” club President Carrie Holden said. “We simply don’t have the resources as a non-profit.”

The club has used facilities at Bethlehem Baptist Church since 2010, Holden said. It provides services for 90 to 100 kids a day with six staff members.

At the church, the club uses a multipurpose room, kitchen, classrooms and gymnasium. At the new center it will have all that and use of the pool, recording studio and others amenities.

Club kids will check in, have a snack, get homework help and then take part in exercise, arts and activities, Holden said.

Inspired in part by the proliferation of TV cooking shows, a generation of local cooks is coming of age. Some helped design the new kitchen.

“They have been involved from design, to fund-raising to programming,” Holden said.

The children toured the facilities several weeks ago.

“They have been over the moon excited,” Holden said. “They cannot believe this is a place they are going to have access to and bring their families, too.”


By now, the story of Billy Ray Shirley, his tragic death and his mother’s crusade are almost legend on the East Side.

What’s less known is that Hayes struggled with self-doubt during the years-long process to bring the center to life.

“I had no idea if we could make it happen,” she said.

At times, she felt like she was drowning.

“I didn’t even know what it would entail,” she said. “I didn’t know anything about architecture, construction, fund raising.”

The mission to build the community center started at a place both unlikely and yet appropriate: Shirley’s funeral. That’s where Hayes first announced her plan to assembled mourners.

“I was a mother in grief, thinking about what can we do in a positive light of my son being dead,” she said.

Inspired, the teens who were close to her son formed Team Billy Ray.

“They trusted me to make this happen,” Hayes said. “And that’s what got me out of bed every day, because I had kids to answer to.”

For the teens, Hayes was a leader who was one of their own.

“I knew there were good people who cared,” Trinh said of the adults in his life back then. “But, at the same time, there were some in power who didn’t really understand the struggles we went through, growing up.”

Just a week after her son’s funeral, Hayes attended a political candidate forum at the Portland Avenue Community Center. Marty Campbell, then a city councilman, was a co-facilitator.

Hayes told her story.

“She was barely holding it together and we could all feel it,” Campbell recalled.

As she had done at the funeral and as she would do so many times in the years to come, Hayes won the crowd over.

“There was magic in that room that night,” Campbell said.

Ushka, then a Tacoma School Board member, was facilitating the evening with Campbell.

“It was electric,” Ushka said of that day. “You just kind of knew.”

It was a style Hayes would use again and again, those who know her say. She didn’t force people to become involved. She convinced them.

Those who worked on the project said Hayes provided the spirit that got them over setbacks and past roadblocks.

“I wasn’t this grief-stricken woman making outlandish demands,” Hayes said. “This is an idea: How do we make it happen?”


The Eastside Community Center will fill a void that has grown wider with each passing year, its advocates say.

“We watched Gault (Middle School and pool) close, we watched libraries close, the Boys and Girls Club (building) close,” Ushka said. “We’ve not had a place where our community can come together and celebrate anything.”

When Ushka was raising her children on the East Side, keeping them busy or entertained meant going to another part of the city.

“If you wanted some place to play, you got in a car,” she said.

“You hear it repeatedly from the youth: ‘We need a space to be, a space that is safe,’ ” Campbell said. “It shouldn’t have had to take a young man dying and then a very courageous mother standing up to provide that voice.”

If society doesn’t present the right opportunities for kids, Campbell said, other, less desirable opportunities will present themselves instead.

The new center will replace the 7,500-square-foot Portland Avenue Community Center, a facility that is little more than three multipurpose rooms. Metro Parks is negotiating a lease with the Korean Women’s Association to move some of its services to the building and keep it operating as a community center. The association’s main offices would remain at 123 E. 96th Street.

Early in the planning stages for the center, many residents were pessimistic, Ushka said.

When someone would suggest a pool, for example, another would stand up and shoot it down.

“We can’t ask for that” was a typical reaction, Ushka said. “That would take too much space and we shouldn’t ask for things like that because we’re not going to get it.”

Hayes, Ushka, Campbell and others found themselves becoming cheerleaders.

“The hardest part for the longest time was convincing the community it was really going to happen,” Campbell said.

When it became clear the center would be a reality, many feared it would be too expensive to use.

“It was never meant to be a huge community center that was financially unaffordable for the community,” Ushka said. “It’s going to take people time to realize that.”

Now that the center has been built, the mission is to make it welcoming, said Metro Parks Tacoma executive director, Shon Sylvia.

That comes through programing and partnering with others, such as social services agencies, as the need arises, he said.

In addition to Hayes’ drive and the passion of those who brought it into reality, the building owes its existence to an unusual collaboration among government agencies.

Metro Parks recognized a need for a new community center on the East Side, Sylvia said. So did others ranging from the Boys and Girls Club to the Tacoma Housing Authority.

The groups, Sylvia said, “Really figured out how to bring it together to be bigger than what one institution or agency was able to do.”

The concept that slowly emerged — a space that could serve the needs of several agencies and their clients — isn’t usually how governments and non-profits operate.

“Although it sounds great, you lose control when you partner,” Sylvia said.

In many situations, Campbell said, agencies not accustomed to working with each other approach partnerships with skepticism.

“If the other government was involved, they were getting the better deal” is how Campbell, now a Pierce County Council member candidate, described the usual attitude.

“This group is doing it for all the right reasons,” Sylvia said.

“None of us could have pulled this off ourselves,” said Dave Lewis, Parks and Recreation deputy director. “Whether it be fund raising or understanding the programing needs of the community. All of that went into the making of this building a reality.”

In the end, Metro Parks contributed nearly $14 million and the Greater Metro Parks Foundation and the Boys and Girls Club provided $3 million.

Another, $5 million came from the city and the state contributed $3.8 million. A federal tax credit program that encourages investment in low-income neighborhoods accounted for another $7 million.

Other agencies, including the Tacoma Housing Authority and the Tacoma/Pierce County Health Department, provided key guidance.

“It’s a true community center, not just a recreation center or just not a teen center,” Sylvia said.

Even the building site was the result of a deal between Tacoma Public Schools and Metro Parks. The district allowed Metro Parks to build on its site and the district was able to build the SAMI school next to Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium. In addition, nearby First Creek Middle School will be available for events associated with the center, Sylvia said.

The state’s assistance came after Hayes intervened at a choice moment.

In 2016, Gov. Jay Inslee was attending a youth summit at the Tacoma Art Museum. So was Hayes.

She saw the governor and his staff waiting to get on an elevator.

“As soon as the elevator opens, I slip in with him,” she recalled.

He was busy talking with his staff.

“At some point I found my break-in and I said, ‘So, governor …’,” she recalled.

She quickly gave Inslee her elevator speech about the community center.

Meetings ensued. Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll made a video stating his support for the center.

Eventually, Inslee put $2.5 million in his budget for the center.

In early October, the governor toured the facility.

“This might be the best (community center) in the state,” he remarked after shooting hoops in the gym.

Like others, he was impressed with how youth were consulted while the building was being designed.

“What I saw in every single room was a reflection of listening to that generation,” Inslee said.


The center is only a link in a chain of improvements underway on the East Side.

Access to Swan Creek Park, just to the east, will be improved. And the $2.7 million phase two of the Pipeline Trail, currently under construction, will point at the center like an arrow. It will open in December.

The Lincoln District revitalization project will wrap up in 2019.

A bronze statue of Billy Ray Shirley is being planned for the center. It should be installed next year, Hayes said.

Though she’s visited the center many times in its countdown to opening it still hasn’t felt real, she said. That might change now.

“We spend all our lives telling kids to dream big and reach for the stars,” she said. “Well, now we told them and actually did it.

“You can make the impossible possible.”

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541, @crsailor

Eastside Community Center

Where: 1721 E. 56th St., Tacoma (on the First Creek Middle School campus)


Rates: Day pass: $5; monthly pass (youth): $19; monthly pass (adult): $32; monthly pass (seniors, active military, veterans): $29. Financial assistance is available. Nonresident rates are $3 higher.


Total cost: $32.7 million

Contributors (in millions of dollars):

  • Metro Parks: 13.9

  • New Markets Tax Credit: 7

  • City of Tacoma: 5

  • State: 3.8

  • Greater Metro Parks Foundation/Boys and Girls Club: 3