Key Pen Parks has come a long way.
In the mid-1970s, Volunteer Park was the only local public park under the supervision of the Key Peninsula Parks and Recreation District. The two fields, still in active use and visible from the KP Highway, were developed by volunteer residents.
Two more properties were acquired in the 1990s. Rocky Creek was leased from the state and the land for Home Park was given to the park district. Kip Clinton, now a parks commissioner, described the Home property as a “dirty dozen dump site,” with artifacts including refrigerators, car parts, two buses and old carpet. Even with abundant volunteer labor, materials required money and the special bonds and levies to raise funds often did not pass.
Clinton began attending parks meetings in the 1990s, in part to learn more about protecting the land she loved to roam. She would horseback ride for up to 20 miles at times, often along the roads. She started to limit her road routes when newcomers would honk as a warning, not realizing it would startle her mare and make for a dangerous ride.
In 2001, the county passed the zoo trek tax, a 0.1 percent sales tax to fund park departments that met certain criteria. The existing parks and recreation district did not qualify. A special election was held in 2004 to replace the old district with the new Key Pen Parks to make it eligible for funding.
Key Pen Parks then purchased Volunteer Park and the Home Park property. Scott Gallacher was hired as executive director in 2005 with one additional halftime employee.
“It took a while to build public trust with the new department,” Clinton said. “We fought hard to get everything we needed, but the visible changes and improvements in Volunteer Park and Home Park made a big difference.”
Since then, Key Pen Parks has acquired nearly 900 acres of land with no-cost 50-year leases, including Rocky Creek, Maple Hollow and Key Central Forest from the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, and 360 Trails from Pierce County. Gateway Park and property at Taylor Bay were purchased outright. Two playgrounds have been built (at Home Park and at the KP Civic Center); 3 miles of soft surface trails were developed; and the Maple Hollow shoreline restoration and trail access have been completed, as have the field and facility renovations at Volunteer Park.
The most visible recent work is what Gallacher called “the big boy on the block,” Gateway Park, a multiphase, multimillion-dollar project.
If the last decade has been one of acquiring land, growing from 245 acres in 2004 to managing or owning 1,232 acres currently, the next stage will be one of development. “Any further acquisition will be strategic,” Gallacher said. “They will need to increase connectivity to the land we own or manage or meet critical aspects of our goals such as shoreline access or habitat protection.”
Key Pen Parks has a fulltime staff of five, including two who maintain the properties and five halftime seasonal employees. Five park commissioners are elected to six-year rotating terms to provide oversight and direction.
Each commissioner brings his or her own skills to the table.
Clinton writes grants for specific funding from public monies. Ed Robison has used his engineering background to design park picnic shelters. Mark Michel has been active in trail design. Shawn Jenson has used his landscaping background to help review park design proposals. John Kelly has extensive experience working with government contracts.
From an initial budget of $150,000, Key Pen Parks has come a long way. The 2016 budget was nearly 2 million dollars, almost a million dollars more than typical because of the work at Gateway. The vast majority of income comes from property and sales tax for operations and maintenance, but public grants from the state and county have provided funding for the major improvement projects and for acquisitions. The Key Pen Parks Foundation acts as a liaison for contributions and also applies for grants.
Gallacher said that volunteers remain essential, helping with programs, Parks Appreciation Day, trail maintenance and more.
“It’s important to partner and collaborate,” he said. “I feel we have been successful in leveraging grants and partnerships to maximize our impact. We have partnered with the KP Historical Society, Red Barn, Farm Tour, Camp Easter Seal.”
For more information, go to keypenparks.com.