Community Government

Grown-up PenMet Parks celebrating 20th anniversary

Posted on May 20th, 2024 By:

Twenty years ago, PenMet Parks’ first director worked out of his green Honda Civic, from a Starbucks or at the dining room table of one of his few employees. The new district owned 12 acres and bore a $250,000 budget.

“We didn’t really have what I would call an office for probably six months,” recalled Marc Connelly, who became PenMet’s first employee in January 2005.

On May 18, 2004, local voters minus the city of Gig Harbor approved forming Peninsula Metropolitan Park District by a 55.1%-44.9% count. With passage came authority to levy a property tax of up to 75 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. On the same ballot, voters chose the first board of commissioners — Joel Wingard, William Sehmel, Scott Junge, Mark Mauren and Randy Boss.

The Sehmel Homestead Park groundbreaking ceremony on July 7, 2008. Fifth from left is Bill Sehmel, joined by former PenMet board members and staff. Marc Connelly, the first executive director, is on the far right. Photo courtesy of PenMet Parks

Today, approaching its 20th anniversary, PenMet Parks manages 652 acres of parkland and provides thousands of hours of recreational programming. It boasts a $9.5 million operating budget and $29 million capital coffer.

“Now citizens on the Gig Harbor peninsula have access to more and better park facilities,” said Connelly, who retired to Sequim in 2010. “I think local control is a real advantage.”

Set up guidelines

It’s not every day that a new government gets stood up. Most have been around decades if not centuries.

“So the most important thing for us to do was to figure out what does that mean,” Connelly, 69, said of PenMet’s earliest days. “We have taxing authority, but we really don’t have a lot of governing rules. So the most important thing was we just needed to set up PenMet Parks to have a real solid foundation, the right financial policies and all the things that go along with running a local government.

“We were really fortunate that the board members we had were all real strong personalities but we all had the same mission and goal. We had really good political will to do things the right way right out of the chute.”

Target No. 1: Sehmel park

The first goal was to finance and develop Sehmel Homestead Park. PenMet’s unfunded predecessor, Peninsula Parks and Recreation District (PPRD), passed a $6.5 construction bond in May 2003, but failed a companion maintenance and operations levy. So the effort died. Property taxes enabled PenMet Parks to issue $6.5 million in park development bonds to improve Sehmel and provide funding for maintenance and operations. The district’s crown jewel opened on May 15, 2010.

“I think it turned out fine,” Connelly said of the 97-acre flagship. “One of the things I said years ago is that if you couldn’t find something to do at Sehmel Homestead Park, you might as well just lock yourself indoors.”

The 20th anniversary celebration kicked off with Parks Appreciation Day on May 4. Planting a tree were, from right, Board President Missy Hill, Commissioner Laurel Kingsbury and Commissioner Billy Sehmel. Karen Larsen from Pierce County Master Gardeners, left, picked out the best spot for the tree and picked out the tree at Rosedale Gardens. Also pictured are park services grounds team members who served as subject matter experts for all the volunteers who participated. Photo courtesy of PenMet Parks

Pierce properties inherited

That same year, Pierce County began transferring Gig Harbor-area properties to PenMet. Connelly wanted to assure the exchange was orderly and the district could manage them. He and Pierce County Councilman Terry Lee worked a deal in which the county paid PenMet $160,000 for each of three years to conduct maintenance.

“It was one of those things where we wanted to make sure if we’re accepting properties with a whole host of deferred maintenance issues, either those items were addressed before we assumed the properties or we were provided additional resources from the county so we could do it,” Connelly said. “Otherwise, you’re charging the taxpayer twice.”

The property transfers gave PenMet a huge boost in inventory it could improve and maintain, Lee said.

“When we did that, I also got $500,000 for maintenance to get them started,” he said. “They were off and running, and they’ve continued to polish the apple ever since.”

Steadying staff

Following Connelly to PenMet were Planning and Special Projects Manager Eric Guenther (2005-2021), Finance and Human Resources Manager Elaine Sorenson (2005-2021) and Administrative Assistant Kim Hairston (2005-2018). They all stayed on until retirement, providing stability and institutional knowledge. PenMet recruited a maintenance team in 2006.

“We had a great team,” Connelly said. “If I was to sum up the time I had there, it was fun. You can have the worst job in the world, but if you’re surrounded by good people it seems like the best job. I had the best people. We had the best time. We were able to do a lot of things in a very, very short period of time.”

Expansion era

PenMet began with just 12 acres of what is now a slice of McCormick Forest Park that it inherited from the PPRD. During Connelly’s five years at the helm, the district grew from that dozen acres to about 400.

“I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart because I kind of feel like it’s my baby,” he said. “It was a great ride and it’s fun to watch from afar. What it is now makes you feel good. Everybody should be proud because a lot of people had their hands in the process, making it able to accomplish what it accomplished and what it will accomplish next.”

It was a bare-bones operation, Boss said. The entire $250,000 first-year budget was funded through county zoo/trek/park sales taxes while PenMet waited for property taxes to accrue.

Rosedale renovation dedication, 2007. Top from left, staff members Eric Guenther, Elaine Sorensen, Eric Benson, Bill Miller, Kim Hairston and husband James Hairston. Bottom from left, Executive Director Marc Connelly and unidentified maintenance person. Photo courtesy of Eric Guenther

“It was enough for us to get on our feet,” he said. “For us who never had a dime to do any parks in the peninsula area, it was a gold mine. We didn’t have any recreation programs. All we did was try to build and maintain parks. That was our first function for the early days.”

The first year involved writing policies and hiring an executive director, Sehmel said. Curtis Hancock and then Guenther directed the district during the months before Connelly came aboard.

Terry Lee takes over

In late 2010, PenMet hired Lee, fresh off completing his term-limited eight years as county councilman, to build upon the foundation Connelly and crew had laid. He didn’t want a long-term contract.

“I really liked the job,” he said. “I went a year and a year and a year and soon it was eight years.”

Terry Lee

Lee, 77, said he’s proud of the recreational programs PenMet established and relationships it developed, like with the city and county in developing the Cushman Trail and with the YMCA in helping to fund its swimming pool.

“Parks and recreation programs are critical to the quality of life in a community,” he said. “I used to comment that an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure. The ounce of prevention is the rec programs for the kids in the community. They keep them out from behind the 7-Eleven smoking cigarettes and whatever else. If you don’t have an ounce of prevention, the cure is juvenile detention in Pierce County.

“If it keeps kids on the right path, it saves the people a lot of money. We didn’t have that prior to the adoption and development of metropolitan park districts.”

After Lee retired in 2018, PenMet ran through four permanent or interim executive directors in three years before hiring incumbent Ally Bujacich in March 2021.

Advance work

PenMet didn’t just spring out of the ground in 2004. It took years of cultivating by largely the same cast of characters.

Sehmel, 73, petitioned for a parks district in 1982. It failed. Proponents lopped off negative-leaning residents of the city of Gig Harbor and Fox Island and tried again in 1984. It passed. Peninsula Parks and Recreation District was born. But it had no taxing authority. It could only obtain funding through supermajority-approved measures.

Funding handcuffed predecessor

It asked voters 16 times between 1986 and 2003 to support bonds or levies. Though results often showed a strong majority, all but the 2003 Sehmel bond failed to reach the required 60%, said Guenther. The maintenance and operations levy failed twice, however, so the bonds couldn’t be sold.

“I was going to every meeting about parks and it got me on the PPRD and eventually on PenMet,” said Sehmel, who also participated with the Friends of Homestead Park group.

Bill Sehmel Sr. swears in son Billy as parks commissioner.

Bill Sehmel Sr. swears in son Billy as parks commissioner in January. Photo by Ed Friedrich

He began a push to turn the homestead into a park in 1992, when his father told him developers had put money down to build a subdivision. The Sehmel family’s PenMet legacy grew when Sehmel’s son Billy was elected to the board in November.

Sehmel described PenMet as a lasting asset to the community. It has taken on a new life since the first five years when he served, yet it’s still young and growing.

“I think it’s served well and has done a good job and its best days are still ahead of it,” he said.

Opportunity opens

The breakthrough for local parks came in 2002, when Boss led an effort to change a state law regarding metropolitan parks districts. Until then, only cities of 50,000 or more could form districts and levy property taxes. Tacoma was the only one in Pierce County. Substitute House Bill 2557 amended the code to allow districts in unincorporated areas.

Randy Boss

Boss had also served with the PPRD and the Parks and Recreation Council. The council comprised participants in a 1994 plan to foster cooperation to improve parks and recreation in the community. It created a committee to file a notice of intent to the Pierce County Boundary Review Board to form a metro parks district. Members were Guenther, Boss, Wingard and Vernon Young. Lee got the county to pay to put the measure on the ballot, Guenther said.

“I was instrumental in the bits and pieces that pulled PenMet Parks together,” Boss said. “Once we coordinated all the early projects and people into that one (PenMet) entity, we were off and running because we had the taxing authority.”

Mary Ellen Sehmel, Don Sehmel and Executive Director Marc Connelly. Photo courtesy of Bill Sehmel

Guenther said thanks should be offered for the Tacoma Metropolitan Park District’s help in providing a framework for many early policy documents and general guidance during the formative years.

“I love what we did getting that started for the community and everything,” he said of PenMet. “The history and how we got there. And the neat thing is to have dedicated money for parks. Those are all good things.”

Executive Director Ally Bujacich, in foreground, board members and legislators perform the ritual turning of the dirt.

Executive Director Ally Bujacich, in foreground, board members and legislators turn the dirt during a groundbreaking ceremony for the community recreation center in August. Photo by Ed Friedrich

Deeply rooted in the community

Executive Director Bujacich said she’s honored to celebrate PenMet’s 20th anniversary alongside the community, and is humbled by its support.

“During its first 20 years, PenMet Parks has become so deeply rooted in our community that cherished places and programs like Sehmel Homestead Park, McCormick Forest, Narrows Park, Scarecrow Festival, the Spring Egg Hunt and so many other others have simply become a part of who we are,” she said. “These are just some of the unique places and programs where our community creates memories and traditions, and everyone can find opportunities for play, physical and mental health and well-being, community building, joy and to be close to nature.

“Recent and planned improvements at the Arletta Schoolhouse, the Sehmel Homestead Park multi-purpose field, Rosedale Hall, Peninsula Gardens, the Tacoma DeMolay Sandspit and the development of the new rec center that will provide nearly 60,000 square feet of indoor recreation opportunities mean that PenMet Parks is well-positioned to boldly grow into the future alongside our community. We look forward to continuing to serve our community through exceptional parks and recreation opportunities for the next 20 years and beyond.”

Neighboring Key Pen Parks followed a similar formation path and is also marking 20 years of metropolitan park district service.

PenMet’s 20th anniversary celebration kicked off with Parks Appreciation Day on May 4. It will continue throughout the spring and summer with a series of community events from concerts to outdoor movies, and participation in the Maritime Gig Parade and Peninsula Art League Art Festival, and will conclude with a signature event — the Scarecrow Festival in October.

20th anniversary events

  • June 1 — 20th anniversary-themed float at Maritime Gig Parade
  • July 10 — Kickoff the PenMet Summer Concert Series at Sehmel Homestead Park. Free snow cones at first concert: The Shy Boys
  • July 19-21 — Partner with Peninsula Art League for the 38th Summer Art Festival at Sehmel Homestead Park
  • Aug. 2-23 — Friday Movie Nights with free popcorn at Sehmel Homestead Park
  • Oct. 5 — Scarecrow Festival at Sehmel Homestead Park. Plans are still underway. In the past, this event has included live music, hayrides, food trucks, pumpkin carving, bounce house, carnival games and pumpkin launcher.

Executive Directors

  • Marc Connelly: January 2005 through July 2010
  • Terry Lee: November 2010 through May 2018
  • Richard Fink III: 2018 through 2019
  • Glenn Akramoff (interim): March through November 2019
  • Doug Nelson: December 2019 through November 2020
  • Hunter George (interim): November 2020 through March 2021
  • Ally Bujacich: March 2021 through present

Properties, date and how acquired

  • McCormick Forest Park: 2004/2010 transfer from PPRD/county
  • Peter’s Pond Natural Area: 2004 transfer from PPRD
  • Sehmel Homestead Park: 2005 transfer from county
  • Wollochet Bay Estuary Park: 2006 transfer from PPRD/several pieces purchased later
  • Rosedale Park: 2007 transfer from county
  • Harbor Family Park: 2007 purchase
  • Kopachuck Heights: 2007 transfer from DNR
  • Madrona Links Golf Course: 2008 purchase from Tacoma
  • Cedrona Bay: 2010 transfer from county
  • Fox Island Fishing Pier: 2010 transfer from county
  • Hales Pass Park: 2010 transfer from county
  • Maplewood: 2010 transfer from DNR
  • Narrows Park: 2010 transfer from county
  • Tacoma DeMolay Sandspit Park: 2010 purchase from DeMolay
  • Sunrise Beach Park: 2010 transfer from county
  • Peninsula Gardens: 2011 purchase
  • Cushman Trail: 2011 land use permit county/TPU
  • Tubby’s Trail Dog Park: 2012 purchase from state
  • McKee Property: 2015
  • Rosedale Community Hall: 2015 RCHA
  • Community Recreation Center: 2019 purchase
  • Rotary Bark Park 2019: purchase from PSD