Thurston County is so beautiful. However, there are the few corners of our county that just seem to stay vacant, unused or empty. Businesses or plans may come and go, but nothing seems to come to fruition. That was what most people assumed would be the case on the corner of Division and Harrison streets in West Olympia.
The empty lot had been the source of contention between neighborhood activists and property developers who could not come to an agreement about what the corner should offer. However, I have been lucky enough to watch the turnaround of this corner right from the very beginning.
On a quiet weekday morning I was having breakfast with Alicia Elliot across the street from the empty, corner lot. She was a little bit giddy, and said she had something to tell me, but we had to go outside. I followed her out to the sidewalk, and she pointed to the land across the street and said that was the surprise. She had purchased the land and she wanted it to be a park.
Five years later, it is a park, the West Central Park, and so much more. A nonprofit was formed with Alicia as the president. A group of volunteers gathers each Sunday to work on particular park projects. On a recent Sunday the group was moving large logs around to accommodate a handicapped entrance for the West Olympia Farmers’ Market that occupies the park every Tuesday afternoon and evening.
Sara Wiley, the president of the West Olympia Farmers’ Market, was there volunteering. She was very excited about the market opening for the season and said she was thrilled to bring in a vegetable vendor and to have berries at the market for the first time. There is also live music, flowers and food vendors.
The market and the park were just the beginning of the revitalization. Soon after the park became a reality, summer movies became a regular event, drawing 20 – 50 walk-up movie watchers each week.
It is the walkability that is the biggest change for this area. The park recently won the right to vacate the alley that leads up to it so they no longer have to pay to close it off to cars for the movies and other events. They are building a commissary for the food trucks which will be swapping out drive-up traffic for walk-up customers. A second location for Phoebe’s Pastry Cafe has also opened up on the Division Street side of the park.
The park, however, is really the heart of the vision. When all is said and done, the entire area will be transformed into a walkable community of commerce and activity. Two other major projects are slated to be finished late this year to further that goal.
The first is the Parkside Cafe, a vegan eatery located in the lot where Degarmo’s Compound Pharmacy used to be. The second is Marie’s Bed and Breakfast, which will be located on Cushing Street. Two managers for the lodging house were just hired, as well as two managers for the cafe. Alicia also recently purchased the cinder block building adjacent to the park. It will be painted and fixed up and likely used as storage, though it could eventually be converted into a living space for a park maintenance person.
Alicia is a woman who never stops imagining. When I first met her, she was teaching cooking classes to teens in an effort to get them involved in healthy cooking. She is a musician and a mother to two young men. She is a supporter of nonprofit causes all around Thurston County, but preservation is of particular interest to her.
A public restroom is still under consideration for the site as well and Alicia is dreaming of making a beautiful, not just utilitarian, one for the park. She is researching economical, artistic and practical ways to keep a public bathroom maintainable. She also dreams of putting people to work in landscaping across Thurston County, building up supervisors for the work over time.
Alicia wants people to be engaged in a beautiful world and works tirelessly to make that vision a reality, one corner at a time.