Celebration Park defies controversy, marks 10-year anniversary in Federal Way

Love it or hate it, Celebration Park is celebrating 10 years in Federal Way.

Ten years after its completion, Celebration Park continues to be a sore subject for some residents. Construction began in March 1998, and the park welcomed its first visitors May 22, 1999. Some residents still oppose the city council's 1996 decision to increase utility taxes to pay for the park along with the Knutzen Family Theatre and other projects. But the space is a proven attraction for local and regional sports enthusiasts.

A small celebration in honor of the park and its founders is planned for May 29 at the park, at 11th Place South and South 324th Street.

The Parks and Recreation Commission will mark the park's 10-year anniversary with a reception, including the honoring of the park's founders, tours of Celebration Park, historical photos and question-and-answer sessions with parks commissioners. The event will be small-scale, parks and recreation commissioner Brian Ailinger said. The commission wished to relieve the city of the burden of paying for a large event, while also acknowledging the importance of the city's largest park, he said.

"We're trying not to lean on the city at all," Ailinger said.

A look back

Celebration Park sits on what used to be an airstrip. The acreage was owned by Boeing employees and turned into a private airstrip following World War II.

The employees began selling the land parcel by parcel and, in 1988, when leaders learned a developer had visions of turning the place into an office park, the city took action. The city completed its purchase of the property for $12.5 million in 1991.

The property sat untouched for years, while park staff and commissioners dreamed of ways to use the land and reviewed master plans for Celebration Park. To the city council's disappointment, environmental studies later revealed much of the acreage as unbuildable wetlands.

The park once again became a hot topic in 1995, when voters were asked to approve a measure to raise utility taxes to fund the park's $7.5 million construction. Voters rejected the proposal.

The following year, voters said "no" to a bond measure that would have funneled $6 million into the park through a $215 million King County bond for parks and open space. Later that same year, Federal Way's then-mayor Ron Gintz, who originally opposed the park before joining the city council in the early 1990s, suggested raising utility taxes 3.67 percent to help pay for the park. The tax increase passed the city council in a 4-to-3 vote and the $16.15 million bond followed.

The city council received criticism from the public, and non-agreeing city council members, following the vote. Hope Elder served on the city council at that time and has said she feels her vote, in favor of the park, cost her re-election to the council. Gintz stuck by the purchase and development of the property, promising it would be a wise choice for the city and its residents in the future.

"I want people to give it a rest. For the next 20 years, let's not pop off about Celebration Park. Let's let history show (its value)," Gintz was quoted in The Mirror at the time.

The park today

Celebration Park today is a prominent figure in the city's history. Annually, baseball and soccer teams from the region and across the United States come to play in the park. Outdoor summer camp activities are held during the warm weather months. Children use the play equipment near the soccer fields, and the head of the BPA trail sits within the park's boundaries. The city's Red, White and Blues Fourth of July festival is also held there.

"Celebration Park really tends to be the jewel of the park system," parks and recreation commissioner Brian Ailinger said. "It's the most frequented."

The park is typically booked every weekend from May to October with local, regional, state and even national sporting events. In September 2006, Federal Way teamed with Kent and Tukwila to host the Senior Softball World Championships. Of 220 teams, 82 competed at Celebration Park, said Terry Hennessy, CIO of Senior Softball-USA.

Current Federal Way mayor Jack Dovey, who was appointed in 1995 to the city council to fill a previously vacant position, has long been a supporter of the park. His desire to see the airstrip transformed into a public park was one factor that drove him to become involved with city government, he said. Former parks and recreation commissioner H. David Kaplan is another resident who has been touched by the park's presence. Kaplan, over the past year, has urged the city to take pride in its park and rejoice at its 10-year anniversary.

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