The winter of 1993-94 was iconic Pacific Northwest: rain gear regularly needed.
Near constant precipitation turned the Center at Norpoint construction site into a giant mud puddle. But that didn’t faze the people who trouped through the muck for pre-opening tours.
A temporary office in a trailer on the corner of the construction site sold advance memberships. By the time the center opened in February 1994, 3,000 people had signed up.
“It was crazy popular, just nuts,” said Daryl Faber, the center’s first manager, who is now the director of Parks, Arts and Recreation for the City of Auburn. He estimated that about a third of Northeast Tacoma’s residents eventually joined Norpoint.
“That neighborhood really wanted it,” said Chris Peart, who led the center’s maintenance crew for the first five years. “We were very concerned that the building (45,000 square feet) was too small.”
The response caught Metro Parks Tacoma by surprise. To accommodate demand, hours were extended and classes were added, said Janet Bissell, who was the center’s first fitness and aquatics coordinator. The core group of staff members on board for opening day was insufficient.
“We just kept hiring as fast as we could,” Bissell said. “We asked a lot from people. If I couldn’t find somebody to teach something, I would teach it myself until I could. Everybody just pitched in.”
Serendipitous timing contributed to the center’s early success. Intensive housing development in Northeast Tacoma was about to take off. Marketing professionals promoting nearby apartments and houses often requested brochures and other materials touting Norpoint’s amenities, Faber said. “There was no place else to get to know your neighbors,” he said. The center became a gathering place, where lifelong friendships were born.
But before the center opened, no one had an inkling of how it would anchor the Northeast Tacoma neighborhood. “We took many things on faith,” said Margaret McCormick, who was Metro Parks’ recreation director at the time. With Norpoint, Metro Parks introduced the concept of membership fees. McCormick recalled how concerned she was about public response. But as it turned out, the center’s amenities – its zero-depth pool, gymnasium, top-of-line exercise equipment – proved an easy sell. “We gave them something that was really spectacular,” she said.
As it turned out, the Center at Norpoint also became a Metro Parks model. Planning for facilities such as STAR Center and the new Eastside Community Center took cues from Norpoint. “Every community center has its own personality and differences, but as far as intimately growing community, there is nothing better,” said Bissell, who eventually succeeded Faber as Norpoint manager. (She has since retired from Metro Parks.)
Months after the center opened, Bissell launched the inaugural Turkey Trot on Thanksgiving morning. That first year, 78 runners turned out. Eventually, participation grew to a high of 2,200. At that point, Tacoma police asked Metro Parks to limit registrations to 1,500 because of safety concerns. The event remains extremely popular. In 2018, the 5K, 2-mile and Kid’s Trot attracted more than 1,100 registrants.
A few years after it opened, Norpoint became an official health test site for S.A.I.L., short for Stay Active and Independent for Life, a government-initiated fall-prevention and fitness program geared to seniors. Patty Walker was the first instructor. She recalled the strong bonds of friendship that developed among participants, who often got together to socialize at lunches and parties in the neighborhood. S.A.I.L., still very popular at Norpoint, has since been widely adopted throughout the region.
Also at Norpoint, Metro Parks pioneered some of the processes now integral to its recreation operations. The Northeast Tacoma center had the first computerized registration system and for the first time used electronic fund transfers as a payment option.
The center was born out of neighborhood frustration with the lack of recreation services in a part of Tacoma far in distance from the city’s heart.
“We took matters into our own hands,” said Marion Weed, a longtime Northeast Tacoma resident who was among the most outspoken advocates for the center. She and her neighbors believed their children were missing out on things despite property owners’ contributions to the Tacoma tax base. A public pool, where kids could learn to swim, was one example. For quite a while, Weed said elected officials balked. “We were just persistent,” she said.
“It was a huge, huge project for us,” McCormick said. “The financing was so tough.”
“The first big break” as Weed described it, was when then state Sen. Peter von Reichbauer, now on the King County Council, convinced then-Gov. Booth Gardner to approve more than $2 million in state matching funds for the project. After that, Metro Parks forged ahead, with additional backing from the City of Tacoma.