Everyone enjoys our public spaces on Mercer Island

by Jonathan Shakes - published in the May 31, 2017 edition of the Mercer Island Reporter

Biking around our Island recently, seeing children and adults practicing sports together and enjoying the spring weather in our public parks, I was reminded how lucky we are to have so many beautiful places to play. Our Island has about 60 acres of developed parkland, including 14 tennis courts, six ball fields, four softball diamonds, two outdoor basketball courts, an indoor basketball court, a volleyball court, a skate park and an artificial turf field. Additional fields and courts, including a first-class Boys and Girls Club facility, are on school district property. We can also hike or jog through 300 acres of open space without leaving the Island, including 119 acres in Pioneer Park and 20 acres on Mercerdale Hillside. I chose to raise my family on Mercer Island because here, I’m surrounded by green, countryside-like beauty — yet our Island also has many of the cultural and educational benefits of living in a larger city.

After I got home from my ride, my kids hit me with a question they’d been asking for weeks: when must their piano pieces be ready to perform? I couldn’t answer. Their teacher, a concert pianist who lives on the Island, had been searching for months to find a location for her students’ semi-annual recital, but she couldn’t find anyplace with a piano that can support the technique of her advanced students. Previous recitals have been in the empty storage areas of Eastside piano stores, but no such location was available this spring.

My daughter’s dance school doesn’t have great options for performance space, either. The Mercer Island High School Performing Arts Center can allot her school only one week each year, at a cost exceeding $800 per day. Imagine the outrage if our youth sports teams, which rent public fields for $18 or $35 an hour, were told that each team gets only one week on public fields each year, and that if teams need more field time, they must find private land.

Despite our Island’s generally excellent parks and recreation facilities, we have a surprising gap when it comes to staging a dance performance, performing music or putting on a show. We force our arts organizations to juggle, struggle, and squeeze into odd corners to carry out their community-service and educational missions.

I’m so grateful to the past generations of leaders on Mercer Island who set aside hundreds of acres of public land for the many group activities we enjoy today. Now it’s our generation’s turn to develop a small fraction of that land — less than one acre — for important cultural activities that have been neglected so far. After we build a theatre on that space, I look forward to watching a live show there, sitting next to all of my neighbors, at our Mercer Island Center for the Arts.