The empty hooks and wires are being filled with artworks. The floor varnish is drying, and they're tucking away the wiring for the sound...

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The empty hooks and wires are being filled with artworks. The floor varnish is drying, and they’re tucking away the wiring for the sound system. Saturday, they may even be polishing the door handles.

After 7 ½ years of planning, Mercer Island is getting ready to open its new community center.

The 42,722-square-foot building will have its grand opening Saturday with a dedication ceremony, art unveiling and activities for people coming to see and explore the building.

The $13.1 million center was built on the site formerly occupied by Mercer View Elementary School, which housed the old community center from its opening in 1980. The old center, which was torn down in July 2004, suffered from a failing roof and plumbing systems and environmental problems because of PCBs used in the building’s electrical system.

“The old building was in terrible condition,” said Parks and Recreation director Pete Mayer.

According to Mayer, the high cost of maintaining the old building set Mercer Island city officials on course to build a new center. It is a course that has had its share of controversy.

In 1998, Mercer Island voters rejected a proposal for a $19.5 million community center many viewed as too extravagant.

Mercer Island Community Center

Size: 42,722 square feet, up from 29,000 in the old community center

Cost: $13.1 million, funded by higher-than-expected revenues from real estate and sales taxes

Gymnasium: doubles as an emergency shelter, complete with food and water storage

Public art: lithographs from Mercer Island’s sister city, Thonon les Bains, France

Wireless Internet: available throughout the building

The City Council responded by eliminating the proposed tax increase to fund the center — it’s being paid for with higher-than-expected real estate and sales taxes — and sent the project back to the architects. Because the center no longer needed voters to approve the tax, the council didn’t have to again get voter approval for the project’s cost.

The Miller Hull Partnership, principal architects for the new center, pared costs by eliminating a climbing wall and performance space, and reduced the size of the center. It also changed the location of the building on the site, which saved money by reducing the amount of earth to be moved.

It also gave the new building a spectacular view.

The new center increases the amount of space available by more than 13,000 square feet. One of its main features is a gymnasium big enough for two basketball courts that will double as an emergency shelter. Two doors in one wall of the gym open to reveal storage space that will eventually hold emergency food and water for 500 to 900 people. Other amenities include:

• Extensive public art, including 71 lithographs from Mercer Island’s sister city in France, Thonon les Bains, and bronze staircase panels by Walla Walla sculptor Wayne Chabre.

• A multipurpose room with attached catering kitchen that can be rented out for weddings and other events.

• Five programming rooms with audio-visual capabilities for activities like meetings, classes or adult day care.

• A recreation room complete with a pool table and Xbox gaming center.

• Dance and workout rooms.

• An indoor/outdoor lounge area with a gas fireplace and barbecue grill.

• A physical therapy room to house a reflexology program for seniors.

Wireless Internet access also will be available in the new building, and parking has been expanded to 222 spaces from the 130 at the old center. One building from the old Mercer View compound has been retained and is planned for use as a day-care facility.

The opening festivities start at 11 a.m. Saturday. The center is at 8236 S.E. 24th Street on Mercer Island. For a schedule of activities or more information, go to

Matt Ironside: 206-464-2449 or