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A gathering place takes shape for Dec. "05 opening

By Ruth Longoria

There's another six-months before the doors officially open to the long-awaited, $12.4 million Mercer View Community Center. But, the skeleton of metal forms, cement and red brick siding overlooking S.E. 24th Street to the south and Lake Washington to the east is already beginning to flesh out.

Asphalt smells waft though the air and the whir of skill saws and assorted other electrical tools provide a syncopation of sound. Dozens of men in hard hats and orange safety vests work inside and outside the building, and several more move about on the roof.

``Our building is really starting to take shape,'' said Brandy Matthews-Fox, the city's project manager for the community center. ``The roof is almost done and the windows will be installed next week.''

The project is proceeding on time and on budget. That's a rarity in large-scale projects such as this, she said.

``Everything just seems to be coming together perfectly. The contractors have been great, the subcontractors terrific, and even the weather has cooperated,'' said Matthews-Fox. ``We've had great weather this year for construction.''

It does seem to be amazing, when one looks at the weekly e-mail updates Matthews-Fox provides to the community center's neighbors, City Council members, and others interested in the process.

Photographs of the project at the end of April show only a roughed in lower level and a clear view to the lake across the top of the cement. Now, one can walk inside the main level and see clearly where Sheetrock will cover metal forms to create the walls and doorways of the rows of classrooms and the large main meeting room, which can be divided into three conference rooms when needed. The plumbing and electrical systems are in place; although, the wiring needs to be ``pulled'' (or run), Matthews-Fox said.

And though the grand stairway -- leading to the downstairs rooms and 10,500-square-foot gymnasium -- has yet to fill the hole that now is blocked off for safety reasons, it's not too hard to imagine it soon in place and, six-months from now, children and adults traipsing up and down the stairs. Of course, there will also be an elevator for those who can't do stairs.

The new community center is being built to accommodate the needs of young and old, said Parks and Recreation Director Pete Mayer.

``This will be a state-of-the-art facility that meets all of the community's needs. It is going to be the civic gathering place we have lacked, far more than just a place for meetings,'' Mayer said. ``We hope it will be a place people will feel comfortable to gather, socialize, and sit down and take in the incredible views.''

As the project inches closer to completion, anticipation builds with each finished portion of the already 75-percent completed roof. ``There's quite a buzz,'' Mayer said of plans leading up to the Dec. 10 dedication ceremony, which will include activities planned with the Island's French sister city, Thonon les Bains, which is expected to send delegates to the Island in time for the dedication.

There's also excitement about hiring a new manager for the community center, Mayer said. Ads went out this week for the position, which Mayer hopes will produce applicants with ``a high level of customer service skills as well as service to the community and patrons of the center.'' The city will accept applications until June 20 for that full-time position. More information is available at the city's Web site (www.ci.mercer-island.wa.gov).

The next six months will bring the culmination of more than a decade of planning and dreaming for councilman Jim Pearman. Pearman, who was co-chair of the community center task force from 1996 to 1998 and chairman of the Mercer Island Parks and Recreation Department from 1993 to 1996, said he can hardly wait for the community center to open in December, as planned.

``I've lived and breathed this for so long, I feel like I've given birth to an elephant and this is my baby,'' he said.

In 1997, Pearman was part of an ad hoc committee that met to review the needs on the Island. And, as a result of that needs assessment, there was a community center design presentation at the 1998 Summer Celebration. However, although approved by the City Council, the original plan wasn't accepted by voters in November 1998.

``The consensus was that it was the price, not the concept that voters didn't agree on,'' Pearman said.

So a new plan was designed. This time, the City Council took out a few options -- such as a walking track around the gym and a music performance room -- and incorporated the daycare centers into a section of the building. That's the plan that was approved and went to bid for construction in June 2004.

As Pearman took a mini-tour of the construction site last week, he reminisced with Matthews-Fox about the old facility, which, they joked, had birds picking apart the ceiling during classes and meetings.

``At least we won't have birds flying above us now,'' Pearman said with a laugh.

``Every time I come here I get more excited about this,'' Pearman said of the developing project. He echoes Mayer's expectations that the new center will be a gathering place for all Islanders.

``Before, someone who didn't belong to a club or place of worship had no place to hold a wedding or special event,'' Pearman said. ``Then, we had no understanding of what a community center could do for a community. When word gets out about the new community center, the buzz will start and there's going to be a `Wow!' on the Island. This is really exciting.''

Sidebar: Community Center at a glance

Cost: $12.4 million

Size: 44,400 square feet

Opening: Dec. 10, 2005

Project manager Brandy Matthews-Fox said she is happy to provide tours of the community center. Information on tours should be available soon on the city Web site at www.ci.mercer-island.wa.us.

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