Decades of persistence paid off Thursday when ground was broken at the future site of the Willapa Center, a new three-story building that will provide much needed housing and child care space in Raymond.
“You guys don’t quit. You just don’t quit,” Joint Pacific County Housing Authority Executive Director Jennifer Westerman told the more than 100 people who showed up for the event at the former site of the Willapa Hotel on Third Street.
“This project’s been so long in the making. I’m so inspired to live in the state of Washington, a state that believes in affordable housing, and funds affordable housing.”
The three-story, mixed-use building will have 30 affordable housing units in its upper floors. Its ground floor will house an early learning facility and non-profit office tenant space.
The effort for the Willapa Center was literally born out of ashes of the 1998 Willapa Hotel fire. Rebecca Chaffee, who founded the Willapa Community Development Association along with David Gauger, recalled the night of the fire and how the community rallied to help the mostly Asian immigrant families displaced by the blaze find immediate housing.
“We ended up with 90 people standing on the street, homeless,” said Chaffee. “And so the community — and really, this community does this over and over again — came together to really support these 90 homeless people.”
The site was cleared and the group and its partners sought funding for housing at the site for almost 30 years. In 2017, numerous organizations came together to “give it another shot,” said Chaffee.
Working with the Washington State Department of Commerce, 19th District legislators and numerous other partners, funding was secured, and with some last-minute scrambling by 19th District legislators, funding to cover about $2 million in increased construction costs was approved in the waning hours of the 2021 legislative session.
Rep. Joel McEntire recalled getting the call from Westerman about the last-minute gap in funding: “She tells me there’s a time sensitive issue and if I can help. And I had no idea about the size of scope of this project. I’m like well, how much? And how much time do we have? She said, we’ve got about a day. I’m like, that’s just enough. I think we can do that.”
He said he was proud to play a role in the project, but said, “There were so many other people and hands that had a part in this that deserve so much more applause. You had the grit and determination to make this happen. I simply had a lever in front of me and I pulled it and I was able to do it in time. I am grateful that you’ve allowed me to be a part of this and I can’t wait to see this be built, take a tour of it, and see it do good things for your community.”
Dr. Steve Holland, Raymond Schools Superintendent, said the new facility would fill two critical needs.
“Number one, we have a preschool. We currently serve 50-60 kids, 3- and 4-year-olds, in a building that’s fine, but it was never designed for 3- and 4-year-old kids,” he said, adding that state regulations make it impossible at times to meet licensing requirements. “So this will allow us to put our kids in a state-of-the-art facility that meets all the safety requirements and do the job right.”
Second, the Willapa Center will put a dent in the large need for housing in the Raymond area.
“When I first came here 18 years ago, I didn’t know that homelessness was an issue,” said Holland.
“But when I was talking to our McKinney Vento liaison years ago, she said, ‘Well, this year, we have 84 homeless kids.’ That was amazing to me. So at any given time, we have 55 to 84 kids that are homeless.”
He said the 30 apartments in the new building “will make a big difference to our kids.”
The event ended with the speakers and other involved parties, including 19th District Rep. Jim Walsh, Raymond Mayor Tony Nordin, and Max Benson of Community Frameworks taking up golden shovels to participate in a traditional groundbreaking ceremony.