No neighborhood in Tacoma needs and deserves a full-service community center more than the East Side, fraught with its hard-luck history of gun violence and poverty.
A proposed $29 million neighborhood hub is now getting a public rollout. It promises a Shangri-La of attractions worthy of its Twitter hashtag, #ImagineEastside.
The plan, with heavy lifting by the city, the school district, the Boys & Girls Club and Metro Parks Tacoma, would provide a sanctuary for kids, families and senior citizens.
It would place a gym, aquatic center and social hall – plus more unusual features, including a recording studio and a teaching kitchen – on the campus of First Creek Middle School. It also would tap into the trails and wetlands at nearby Swan Creek Park, which is suddenly enjoying a renaissance.
What’s not to like about that?
But East Siders know better than to pop champagne corks just yet. They’re entitled to be wary after what happened in 2010, when the Boys & Girls Club closed its dilapidated 50-year-old branch on East 64th Street.
It was announced with little advance notice to the city, and with little chance for residents to be heard. Families were told the organization would start busing their kids across town for activities.
“The East Side is being abandoned,” City Councilman Joe Lonergan said at the time.
“We have lost out once again,” added Lynette Scheidt, president of the Eastside Neighborhood Advisory Council.
Mindful of that regrettable history, sponsors of a new community center have prudently taken their time to go public with their big, bold plans. They’ve scheduled an open house for May 18 at 6 p.m. at the Salishan Family Investment Center, 1724 E. 44th St.
Neighbors will be asked “what, thematically, do you want (the community center) to look and feel like?” Metro Parks recreation and community services director Dave Lewis told the News Tribune editorial board last week.
While the center would be open to all ages, the primary beneficiaries would be youth. As many as 250 kids a day would be served, well above the 100 who now fill Bethlehem Baptist Church for after-school, holiday and summer activities.
Bethlehem admirably stepped up to provide space for Boys & Girls Club programs when the East Side club closed six years ago, but the church is stretched to capacity.
The school/community center hybrid is modeled on the Metro Parks STAR Center, which co-exists on the grounds of Gray Middle School and the Boys & Girls Topping HOPE Center. The campus of shared facilities has helped bring more recreational vitality to South Tacoma.
The East Side likely wouldn’t be capturing its own lightning in a bottle today if not for the work of Shalisa Hayes, a neighborhood mom.
Her son, Billy Ray Shirley III, mentioned to her offhandedly in 2011 that he’d like to help open a community center. Months later, he was shot to death after he went to a party to give someone a ride home. Team Billy Ray was born, money was raised, and a 17-year-old boy’s dream is getting closer to fulfillment.
The effort calls to mind the Zina Linnick project, a community collaboration that restored a park and built a playground in Tacoma’s Hilltop area so children would have a safe place to play. That project was sparked by the abduction and murder of a 12-year-old girl in 2007.
Perhaps someday, the death of children won’t be the impetus for fulfilling big dreams in struggling neighborhoods.
The East Side center team has secured nearly two-thirds of the construction funding. With groundbreaking planned for December, the leaders of the project are seeking federal funds and private donations for the final $10 million needed to build and open in 2018.
They’re also fundraising for an endowment to run the youth programs, and keep them running, at an estimated annual cost of $600,000.
Caution would advise that they lock down at least five years of operations money before turning the first shovel of dirt.
For residents of this resilient Tacoma neighborhood, it doesn’t take much prompting to imagine the East Side as a place of boundless opportunity.
But it takes much less for them to imagine being abandoned again.