Matt Driscoll

Fircrest is getting a new pool. The rest of us get a lesson on the power of face-to-face politics

“This is the heartbeat of Fircrest, and this keeps that heartbeat going for a long time.”

Fircrest neighbors celebrate their community's near 80-percent approval of a tax measure to build a new Fircrest Recreation Center and outdoor swimming pool.
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Fircrest neighbors celebrate their community's near 80-percent approval of a tax measure to build a new Fircrest Recreation Center and outdoor swimming pool.

By any reasonable sense of the word, the victory in Fircrest was overwhelming.

On Tuesday, residents in the cozy enclave voted, by a rather astonishing margin, to raise property taxes for a much needed new pool and recreational center.

As of this writing, just over 2,000 votes from Fircrest’s roughly 6,700 residents had been counted. Of those votes, a little more than 1,700 — or 79-percent — came in favor of funding the new pool and rec center.

That’s a landslide, anyway you slice it. While it might not be surprising that the park bond passed, the manner in which it passed — blowing away the needed 60-percent super-majority —certainly is.

Then there’s turnout. Fircrest pool and rec center supporters didn’t just need people to cast votes in favor, they also needed a minimum of 40-percent of the overall turnout in the November 2018 election to show up again, this time for an easy-to-miss April special election.

They blew that one away, too.

Fircrest’s reward is obvious. The town will get a new pool, replacing the 1960s-era one they currently have which was built for a population half the size and leaks thousands of gallons a water every day. It also gets a new rec center, complete with ADA accessible bathrooms, a functioning roof and a “teen room” that doesn’t feel like a creepy, horror movie basement waiting to happen.

For those of us watching from afar, there’s also something to be gained here.

In an era of stultifying divisiveness and high-level government gridlock, a town perhaps best known for its well-enforced 25 mile-per-hour speed limit has provided a lesson on the power and potential of community engagement on a micro level.

“This is the thing I love about cities and towns, about local government,” says Hunter George, Fircrest’s appointed mayor and an eight-year veteran of the Fircrest City Council. “You’re talking about your neighborhood, and people care about that.”

“We had to talk to each other, and we had to listen to each other,” George, who is also a former editor at The News Tribune, continues. “Everybody compromised. Everybody listened. It’s reaffirming that we actually know how to do that in this country.”

It certainly is.

It’s also a lesson not lost on the many Fircrest residents who helped make it happen.

Andreas Schonger is a 42-year-old pipe organ builder from Germany. By “from Germany,” I mean more specifically that the father of two, who has lived in Fircrest since 2008, is a German national, not a citizen of the United States.

Schonger couldn’t vote in Tuesday’s special election, but he still dedicated his time and efforts to helping ensure the bond passed. He contributed to the steering committee that helped guide the process, and he contributed to the campaign to help get out the vote.

“I think (the vote) says that (Fircrest) is still a relatively well-functioning small town, and I think that’s what’s frustrating to me. On a national level … it always gets gridlocked,” Schonger says.

“I think there could be a lesson, that when people actually get together and talk face-to-face, and are cordial and work on a common goal, that can be more fruitful than bickering about things that we have very little influence on, besides a vote on a national level,” Schonger continues.

When it comes to longevity in Fircrest, Willie Stewart — the former Tacoma Schools teacher, administrator, school board member and the district’s first black principal — is hard to beat. Stewart has lived in Fircrest since 1974, and his children grew up using the now dilapidated pool and rec center.

Supporting the bond was important for personal and civic reasons, Stewart says. Growing up in Texas, he lived in a community where he wasn’t allowed to swim in the public pool. It was for “whites only,” he recalls.

To this day, Stewart describes himself as a “non-swimmer” because he never learned how. Teaching children how to swim, and giving them a functioning, welcoming place to learn, is about safety, he says.

This vote — and the effort to make it successful — also was about standing by the principles he regularly sees on display in the community he’s called home for 45 years.

“This was an extension of who we are, and who this community is,” Stewart says. “This was for the welfare of the future and for the young people.”

Watching the special election results come in Tuesday night, Stewart says he was “ecstatic and overwhelmed.”

It’s a sentiment many in Fircrest undoubtedly shared.

While it’s a safe bet to assume most people reading this column won’t directly benefit from the new pool and rec center, there’s something for all of us to take from the effort that made it happen.

Engagement in national level politics is important, now more than ever. Don’t stop, and try not to let the noise, rancor and divisiveness get you down.

But when it does — as it inevitably will from time to time — remember there’s an important difference to make in your own backyard — neighbor-to-neighbor, block-to-block, face-to-face.

“I can just see, and picture, my two daughters riding their bikes and walking them up (to the new pool), and having a great time swimming with their friends growing up,” says Andrew Imholt, a 34-year-old Fircrest father whose family is expecting a second daughter any day now.

“I decided to stay in Fircrest because of the strong sense of community,” he adds.

Now, with the bond victory under the city’s belt?

“I’m ready to go,” he says, enthusiastically. “It really makes me want to get more involved.”

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.
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