Facilities levy to improve worn North Mercer Gym

Elizabeth Celms
Mercer Island Reporter

More than $500,000 of the 2008 Capital Facilities levy will go toward improving the North Mercer gym. Yet few Islanders, if asked, even know the gym exists.

Tucked away in a distant corner of the Mercer Island High School Campus, the North Mercer gym has long idled in the shadow of its neighbor: Youth Theatre Northwest. Anonymous as it is, the athletic facility gets plenty of use by MIHS athletes and community residents. And that is why the MISD has allocated nearly five percent of the levy toward its remodel.

“Few people realize just how busy that gym is,” said Brian Emmanuels, a vocal proponent of Island youth sports. “Kids are always in there, both for practice and for games.”

Even the Mercer Island School Board, when going over the final levy numbers at their Jan. 10 meeting, had to be reminded of the purpose it served.

“It is a very high-usage facility,” Boardmember John DeVleming said, responding to anxiety over the facility’s six-digit levy price. “Every day after school, the gym is being used for hours.”

The North Mercer building, located on 40th Street, was built in 1960. Since then, the facility has slipped through the financial cracks, with the majority of levy funds going toward the high school and its adjacent sports facilities. Today, the gym and its locker room are in dire need of repair.

Step inside the decades-old gym and one can’t help but notice the popcorn ceiling, squeaky bleachers and grubby walls. If the levy passes, the interior will be repainted and new bleachers will be installed. But that is where the upgrade stops.

Although the popcorn ceiling brings back memories of the ’70s, the plastering is safe, solid and will not be replaced.

“No, there is no asbestos in there. We even joked about putting a sign in there that says so,” said Associate Superintendent of Business Services Liz Dodd with a laugh. “It has been tested, and it’s clear.”

The gym roof, however, is another matter. After close examination, the district has decided that resurfacing the roof will cost $96,000. The material does not need to be completely replaced, Dodd said, but simply patched up in certain areas.

The North Mercer locker room and bathrooms are especially neglected. Few visitors even use the room, opting to change at home rather than at the gym. The showers serve little purpose other than collecting grime. And the benches are far from comfortable.

In total, $408,684 will go toward revamping the bath and locker room. The district will rip out the floor, replacing it with new tiles, modern benches, toilets and other fixtures. And the showers?

“We’re going to fix those up too and add partitions,” Dodd said. The School Board hopes the extra privacy will encourage students to shower after practice, rather than at home.

And the final North Mercer touch? Replacing the building’s heat pump for $15,000.

During next year’s MIHS remodel, the school plans to relocate its gymnastics team to the North Mercer gym. At present, the boys freshman and girls freshman/sophomore basketball teams are the only athletic groups using the facility for practice and games.

Although Mercer Island Parks and Recreation also uses the gym for a variety of activities — from aerobics class to summer fitness boot camp — the district’s main concern, as the building’s owner, is improving the facility for its sports teams.

“The main reason we’re putting money toward [North Mercer] is to bring the facility up to code requirements for the girls’ gymnastics team, which will be relocating to that site,” Dodd said. And with a pending Title IX audit, the importance of such improvements is clear.

“These improvements are long overdue,” Boardmember DeVleming said.

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