Parkland School catalyzes neighbors to support South Sound community

Apr 3, 2024, 4:24 PM | Updated: 4:47 pm

Image: Neighbors in the Pierce County community of Parkland are leading a grassroots effort to pres...

Neighbors in the Pierce County community of Parkland are leading a grassroots effort to preserve Parkland School. They face a fundraising deadline on April 30 to purchase the building and are seeking contributions. Pictured from left are Gunnar Johnson, Wendy Freeman and David Nelson. (Photo: Feliks Banel, KIRO Newsradio)

(Photo: Feliks Banel, KIRO Newsradio)

Neighbors in Parkland, south of Tacoma, have been working for two years to save the historic Parkland School. They now face a significant fundraising deadline at the end of April and are looking to fans of historic preservation and strengthening communities everywhere for financial support.

This grassroots group – the official name of the non-profit organization is Parkland Community Association – has secured about $700,000 in grants and other commitments toward a $2.8 million purchase price. By April 30, they need to raise $230,000 in cash as part of their purchase agreement with Pacific Lutheran University (PLU), current owner of Parkland School.

Parkland is in unincorporated Pierce County along State Route 7 (SR 7) on the way to Mount Rainier. Parkland School was built in 1908, with some significant later additions. It’s probably the oldest building in existence by a matter of decades that has the word “PARKLAND” built into its structure. The letters are right there in the concrete over the front door where it says “PARKLAND SCHOOL.”

It was a public school until about 40 years ago, when PLU purchased it from Franklin Pierce School District and then used it as a satellite of their campus, which is a block or so away. PLU and the community of Parkland were founded at essentially the same time in 1890.

As KIRO Newsradio reported nearly two years ago, PLU had been renting the building to other tenants in the past decade or so, but had crafted plans to demolish the school and sell the land to developers. But word got out, and the community coalesced around trying to save the school instead. A grassroots campaign came together, led by a few dozen people who live in Parkland, but who didn’t yet know each other.

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‘Total strangers’ try to save the Parkland School

Standing outside Parkland School in the sunshine on Tuesday, Gunnar Johnson, David Nelson and Wendy Freeman looked to be the spitting image of what you might find if you looked up “grassroots historic preservation group” in the dictionary.

“We are the roots of the grass, we are the sod beneath the roots,” Freeman joked. “We came together, 24 people sitting in the church foyer lobby. The first time we got together, we’d never met each other before – we were total strangers. We were all getting organized and figuring out what to do.”

That first meeting Freeman described was held across the street from Parkland School at Trinity Lutheran Church, and from which it was clear there was a shared passion.

“We’ve got to save the school and, holy cow, I would say that we’re probably the single most diverse group of people I’ve ever met in my life,” Freeman said, describing the similarities and difference within the group. “I don’t think we agree about anything. I mean, we don’t even agree about recipes.”

There is one key thing they all agree about, however.

“You know, we don’t agree about anything,” Freeman emphasized. “But we agree about the school.”

And what they agree about for Parkland School is that the historic structure could and should become exactly the community center that Parkland needs to house a variety of groups and services – and to give Parkland the “center of gravity” which everyone agrees it currently lacks.

David Nelson, who attended Parkland School more than 60 years ago and who recently moved back to Parkland, is sentimental about the building. But his feelings go far beyond mere sentimentality.

“It just brought the community together,” Nelson said. “Everybody knew each other back in the day in Parkland, and I think if they make it a community center now, it’ll bring it back to what it once was for everybody.”

“Now it’s kind of like strangers, everybody kind of hides in their house and everything,” Nelson continued. “Well, if you get a community center, get seniors in there, get youth in there, get in people from the community and (they’ll) become more friends than just acquaintances or strangers.”

This group of Parkland neighbors has accomplished so much in the past two years, including securing numerous grants and pledges of support, it’s easy to forget that one of the first things they did after battling with PLU over their development plans for Parkland School was to meet with PLU President Allan Belton. That ultimately led to negotiations and a deal whereby PLU agreed to withdraw their development plans and sell the building to the community group.

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One of the members at that key meeting with President Belton was 20-something PLU graduate Gunnar Johnson, who was there on the steps in the sunshine Tuesday.

Johnson says that working with PLU has been notably non-adversarial.

“From that first meeting, I could tell there was a willingness to cooperate,” Johnson said. “But maybe just not as clear a path forward, at least from PLU’s standpoint. But I’m really glad that we’ve come this far, even to the extension of the deadline.”

As Johnson points out, PLU has extended the deadline for the Parkland School boosters to come up with the $230,000 down payment, with the current deadline of April 30 now just a few weeks away.

“I think that speaks a lot to the agreeable nature of what we want and what PLU wants,” Johnson continues. “PLU wants to make sure this building goes to a group that’s going to use it and we want to be that group.”

A business plan for the creation of a community center

In addition to securing grants and pledges, the Parkland group has also been working on a business plan for creating a community center at Parkland School. This includes getting commitments from potential partners and tenants as they map out a future that serves Parkland. For any doubters who make think this preservation and development effort is about sentimentality, it’s clearly about more than just saving an old school that many people happen to still love.

As she spoke with KIRO Newsradio on Tuesday, Wendy Freeman named several community groups who’ve already agreed to take space in Parkland School, and local contractors willing to donate labor and materials to do necessary repairs such as re-roofing the building.

“These are people that are saying ‘Yeah, we want to be in the building we want to work,'” Freeman said.

And, Freeman says, demand for a place for Parkland residents to gather and to take part in year-round activities that improve quality of life is off the charts.

“When we talked to the community, the community was really concerned about health and wellness,” Freeman said. “They were very interested in recreation, we have the gym (inside the school). So if we have it open, it can be a recreation area for the kids.”

“They’re also very interested in youth and senior programs, they’ve said that a lot,” Freeman said. “So we’re trying to be respectful and have what the community is asking for.”

The key to that, Freeman says, are those educational and service groups, and public agencies, that have pledged to become tenants just as soon as Parkland School can reopen.

“Those are our partners,” Freeman said. “And those are people that are really interested in being tenants, so they would take a part of the building. This is 36,000 usable square feet.”

One challenge which anyone trying to create a new public amenity in Parkland must overcome at some point is the fact that Parkland is not a city, it’s unincorporated Pierce County. There’s no mayor or city council or community council – and thus no existing publicly-funded agency who could tap into revenue from taxes on Parkland businesses and residents in support of a community center.

Jani Hitchen is a Pierce County Council member whose district includes Parkland. She’s a PLU grad who took classes in Parkland School. She has been a big supporter of the efforts of the Parkland Community Association, and she has devoted a lot of time and attention to the project.

Council member Hitchen says Pierce County has pledged nearly $32,000 to the effort through a historic preservation grant, which she acknowledges is a drop in the bucket toward the $2.8 million total purchase price.

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What you can do to help save the Parkland School

Hitchen says she and her staff have beat the bushes for other funding sources.

I truly I applaud the group that is doing this, and have stood on the street corner with them, showing up at rallies, (and) I’m going to El Toro with them,” Hitchen said, that last item a reference to a fundraiser coming up on Monday at El Toro Mexican Restaurant and Cantina’s Parkland location.

“It’s because I’ve walked that campus, I took classes in that in that school, worked with kids there and it really is a beautiful building,” Councilmember Hitchen continued. “It’s just one of those things where we haven’t been able to find the money available without strings attached or rules attached or timelines attached that work with where we are.”

To raise $230,000 by April 30, Parkland Community Association is inviting anyone willing to support their effort to make cash contributions of any amount via their website

Supporters are also invited to dine at El Toro Monday when a portion of all proceeds will be donated toward the $230,000 goal.

We know Hitchen will be there. Same goes for Freeman.

“The carne asada is to die for — it’s my favorite, I love it to death,” Freeman said. “And their green salsa? Yummy! I’m telling you right now, so good. And my husband loves the bacon-wrapped shrimp. It’s kind of an appetizer, but it’s got sauce, cheesy sauce, on it. Oh, he loves that so much.”

During an era when it feels like the people and initiatives that divide us get all the oxygen and all the donations, the people of Parkland Community Association are to be commended for having already accomplished so much. When many of us simply sit back and lament the divide, these diehards are working tirelessly every day to build bridges connecting neighbors and groups around a shared vision of place that everyone in Parkland can get behind.

If you care about grassroots historic preservation and building up our communities, consider making a donation at or at least by placing an order of carne asada.

You can hear Feliks Banel every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien. Read more from Feliks here and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea or a question about Northwest history, please email Feliks. You can also follow Feliks on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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