It started as a joke — at least kind of.
Andrew Imholt says he would use it as an ice breaker at parties. People would ask where he was from, and he proudly would tell them Fircrest, the Mayberryesque burg best known as a speed trap sandwiched between Tacoma and University Place.
Then, Imholt would tell partygoers about his effort to get the town’s water tower painted, which at the time was merely a gag.
“Right smack dab in the middle is going to be a big 25,” Imholt would explain, often earning a knowing chuckle — Fircrest’s notoriously enforced speed limit serving as the punchline.
“Good or bad, that’s what Fircest is known for,” Imholt explains.
It’s a gimmick Imholt started pulling in 2011, not long after he moved to town.
Recently, he had to retire it.
That’s because roughly three years ago Imholt got serious about the idea — or at least the broad strokes of it. He really did want to see Fircrest’s water tower get updated and with something more than a standard coat of paint.
Selling a majority of the Fircrest City Council on the speed-trap spoof was probably a long shot, he quickly realized, so he turned his attention toward a mural.
Last week, painters put on the finishing touches. Along with a fresh coat of primer, Fircrest’s water tower — which is visible from state Route 16 and previously looked like a sad, generic version of a 1960s Oakland Raiders helmet — now bears the city’s official logo.
While Mount Rainier with seven fir trees in the foreground wasn’t Imholt’s original idea — he worked with his sister, a graphic designer, on several other mural ideas — it’s “better than it was,” he says with pride.
“I love it,” he adds.
The paint job’s completion also marked the end of a quest that occupied Imholt for the last three years.
“I kept making that joke, and I kept looking up and it remained unchanged,” Imholt says, explaining that he came to see the paint job as “ a unique opportunity for community identity and community pride.”
“I don’t want to compare it to ‘Field of Dreams,’ but it was like an invisible force, something just told me, ‘You need to see this project to completion,’” he says.
Like Kevin Costner, Imholt got some help along the way.
The idea started to take shape after a coffee date in 2016, he explains, with Fircrest’s current mayor Hunter George. As it turned out, Fircrest’s water tanks — there are two, one a tower and one on the ground — were due for new paint jobs. It had been more than two decades since either received a new coat; painting them, every so often, is part of standard maintenance.
So, there was a window to make something happen, which is when Imholt, George and a handful of other Fircrest boosters jumped into action.
“When Andrew brought this idea to me in 2016, I knew we would be painting the tanks within two or three years, so we talked about the need to do research and to be patient. We also talked about the need to compromise if necessary,” George says.
“Our organizational culture at the City of Fircrest is ... stingy. I don’t mean that in a pejorative way. We try really hard to not spend money. Our City Council is proud of the staff’s ability to stretch a dollar as far as it will go,” George continues. “So I knew that adding a mural to the water tower wasn’t necessarily an easy request of the council. But I also knew that the tower represents a huge opportunity to demonstrate pride in our community.”
George describes the idea as “a one-time investment” that will last years, serving “as a beacon.”
After a public bidding process, George says Fircrest paid roughly $150,000 to paint the tanks, with just over $6,000 going toward the mural.
“Seeing the freshly painted tank with the Fircrest logo on it will be a great way to signal that I’m almost home,” George, who works in Tacoma, says.
Anne Jones, a Tacoma-based Realtor who has lived in Fircrest since 2010, was similarly inspired by the unique cause. As Fircrest’s City Council was weighing the decision, Jones spoke in favor of the proposed project.
For residents, Jones says, the mural-adorned water tank will help convey Fircrest’s “strong sense of community and identity.”
For outsiders, she says, the water tower can help sell Fircrest, promoting its many charms.
“The potential was there for it to be this great billboard for the city,” Jones says, noting that, for many, Fircrest’s small-town allures remain an unknown.
“It’s really this outward signal to people that there’s pride in the community. I think that’s what’s neat about it,” Jones says. “I think it’s a great talking point, and I hope people will be really excited.”
Since the mural was completed last week, it has gotten people in Fircrest talking, Imholt acknowledges.
Still, there’s little question that a water tower paying homage to the city’s restrictive speed limit would have generated substantially more buzz.
For the record, George is a fan of the idea, in the long-term. He notes that the Narrows Brewing Company recently released its Fircrest IPA featuring a 25 mph speed-limit sign, and a similarly decorated water tower could be like Fircrest’s version of the famed “Peachoid” water tank in Gaffney, South Carolina.
“Our reputation is we’re a speed trap, even though data shows we aren’t. We should own it and have some fun with it,” George says.
“Maybe next time,” he adds. “As Andrew and I talked, ideas like this require patience.”
After some thought, Imholt says he’ll be ready to sign up when the time comes.
“Maybe the logo is the start, testing the water,” Imholt offers. “Maybe 10 years down the road, if it looks like it could use a fresh coat of paint …”
“You know what? I’d go for it,” he concludes. “I’d start campaigning.”