It takes 46 seconds to drive through Key Center at the legal limit of 35 mph. During that period the motorists will pass a smoke shop, a liquor store, a restaurant that sells alcohol, a saloon that sells food, and a restaurant with an upscale cocktail lounge. They will also whiz by a trading post, a real estate office, a combination hardware store and lumber yard, a combination nursery and florist, a medium-sized market, an espresso stand, a charitable organization, a computer repair shop, bank, Safe Streets office, furniture store, dog grooming business, a library, a fire station, three different hair salons/barber shops, plus a variety of medical services including a doctor, dentist, chiropractor, physical therapist, and a holistic healing practitioner.

And why are those particular businesses where they are? Is it because someone planned it that way? Nope. Like so many small unincorporated Rural Activity Centers (RACs), Key Center was built by successive generations of entrepreneurs all acting in what they believed to be their own best interests. Key Center’s newest business, the KP Smoke Shop, is an excellent example. Over the years, the building located at the intersection of Olson Road and the Key Pen Highway housed a gas station, a garage, and an auto parts store. So, why turn the structure into a smoke shop?

Key Center got its name around 1931, when a group of merchants sponsored a
contest to create an official name for the peninsula. Ed M. Stone of Lakebay is credited with coming up with “Key Peninsula.” The business community liked it, and once the new moniker was adopted, the community located halfway down the peninsula became known as “Key Center.” Source: “Early Days of the Key Peninsula” by R. T. Allege

Because a pack of Marlboros costs $3.89 at the smoke shop (before tax) — and the same pack of cigarettes is $4.89 over at the Peninsula Market (before tax). That’s a $1 per pack competitive advantage!

Is the smoke shop a good addition to Key Center? Smokers, reeling from constantly increasing prices, might very well answer, “Yes!” And it’s consumers who ultimately determine which businesses will live and which will die—thereby defining the character of the community.

The new smoke shop belongs to Yong Lim, who, along with his wife, Chang Lim, operates the Shell gas station on Key Peninsula Highway. They chose to live on the peninsula for the same reasons that many relative newcomers do. “I like small community or town,” Lim says. “Everybody is friendly. People know each other. That’s the way we grew up (in South Korea).”

When asked about his reasons for opening a smoke shop, he says, “If I don’t open down there (Key Center), someone else will.” He says when the smoke shop at the former space of KP Video on Key Peninsula Highway opened, the gas station started to lose cigarette customers.

“It’s their choice. People come in if they want to,” says Lim, who quit smoking about five years ago. That sums up the way Key Center and thousands of similar business communities originally came into being. Entrepreneurs took a chance and their businesses either flourished or failed. But, is the traditional all-American free-for-all the right way to go from this point forward?

Dennis Taylor with Safe Streets says, “I don’t think it’s the kind of business that’s good for any community. It’s a legitimate business, and if he wants to be there he can, but from a health perspective and what’s good for the community, smoke shops are not a good addition. Smoking makes people sick.”

But, the notion of viewing business development through the prism of what’s healthy or not healthy is a relatively new way to look at things. And, to be fair, other retailers in the Key Center RAC sell cigarettes too, and do so without fear of criticism. Of course they don’t sell bongs (pipes that are frequently used to smoke illegal substances) while the KP Smoke Shop does. When asked about that practice, Lim replied, “If we don’t have it, people won’t come to our store, they go down street. I don’t like it, but we are in competition with other businesses.”

In other words, a business person’s gotta do what a business person’s gotta do, to make a profit. That is and has been the American way.

Still, the notion of thinking about what sort of community Key Pen residents want to have in the future is gaining traction. Mike Kruger, a Pierce County planner, and a community planning board comprised of Key Peninsula residents are already hard at work. The process includes five components: The first, which involved looking at issues related to the natural environment, is now complete. Discussions about economic development started in early May. Once that effort is complete the board will turn their attention to land use, community character, and facilities/services.

KP community planning
Next month, read about economic development and land use, in our continuing effort to provide Key Pen residents with information related to the current community planning. We will also archive these stories online in a special section.
For information about the KP Planning Board, including a list of members, the work program, progress to date, agendas, maps, and an opportunity to provide input, see www.piercecountywa. org/landuse or call 798-2700. The meetings are twice at month, at 7 p.m. at the KP Middle School library. The June meeting dates are 1 and 21.

 

Later, once the overall plan has been approved by the county council, Kruger says the plan “will guide growth and development on the Key Peninsula for the next 20 years.” Meaning that what the Key Peninsula Community Planning Board recommends, and what the Pierce County Council approves, will have the force of law.

How do people in Key Center feel about the creation of such a plan? Joyce Tovey is a real estate broker, co-owner of Windermere Realty in Key Center, a member of the KP Business Association, and vice president of the KP Community Council. When asked if there should be some sort of plan for Key Center, Tovey replied with an unequivocal, “Yes! I guess to put the longer perspective on it, the planning group is going into the economic development part of their activity now. Whatever comes out of that will help determine what will happen to Key Center… I think when Doug Fabre built the KC Corral (the Key Center business strip), his vision was great… People liked the way it looked. If you go to Leavenworth, or a place like that, they draw because everyone cooperates to establish a common appearance. I think that would be very nice. I don’t want to say cute… But something that would draw the eye.”

Others seem to agree and would like to see Key Center become something more than a place to get some nails, have their hair done, or buy a pack of smokes.

“If we were looking to the future,” Taylor says, “one of the things I would hope to see happen would be for a park where the big parking lot is presently located. If there was a town square, there would be a place where people could gather… Rather than just drive through, people would pause to interact with each other. My role has to do with community safety, but also building a sense of community, which makes a community more livable.”

According to county data, Key Center RAC’s 94 acres include 43 acres of commercial developments (including 3 acres of apartments), 19 underdeveloped acres and 29 acres of vacant land.

So, do people want to see Key Center grow? According to a county-sponsored survey that was done in conjunction with the KP community planning process, 50 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that “Key Center should be the focal point for economic development on the Peninsula,” while 29 percent were neutral, and 16 percent disagreed.

Under the heading “Land Use,” the survey concluded that 67 percent of respondents agreed that “The commercial area at Key Center should be expanded to accommodate new retail uses”; 18 percent were neutral, and 10 percent disagreed.

In the belief that at least some support exists for a revitalized Key Center, the KP Business Association recently formed a committee to provide the planning board with input regarding economic development. (The committee is expected to make a presentation at a board meeting.)

But there are obstacles, not least of which is the fact that outside of its designation as a RAC, Key Center has no legal status, and with no population to speak of, lacks a tax base. Dale Harrison, owner of Harrison Homes and a member of the planning board, points to infrastructure problems as potential barriers to further development.

“We have constraints relative to infrastructure,” he says. “Sewer, water, storm drainage are normally associated with economic development.” All of which are lacking where Key Center is concerned. (That’s why the post office has a big catchment for storm water next to it.)

Real though such problems are, an extreme makeover of Key Center could be carried out without improvements to infrastructure, and, when asked about that possibility, Harrison was supportive. “Absolutely. I think we should have a vision for how Key Center should look, so long as local business owners buy in,” he says.

In spite of the problems, Tovey remains hopeful, and urges interested citizens to provide the KP Community Planning Board, the KP Community Council, and the business association with input.

 Having started a new business in Key Center, would Lim support an effort to make the RAC all that it can be? “Yes,” he says. “I would support it. You help me—I help you.”

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