Sun finally shines on gym

(Above) Gymnastics coach Norton Schimke (left) works with  assistant coach Dayton Gilbreath  to  haul equipment into the trasmitter building at Battle Point Park Thursday. - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
(Above) Gymnastics coach Norton Schimke (left) works with assistant coach Dayton Gilbreath to haul equipment into the trasmitter building at Battle Point Park Thursday.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

Just six months ago the project to renovate the World War II-era transmitter building at Battle Point ground to a halt.

The expense of electrical work and a second roof replacement drained the budget. Leaks in the foot-thick concrete walls forced volunteers to tear out freshly hung drywall, evaporating remaining funds.

“At that point it was looking pretty dismal,” said John DeMeyer, Bainbridge Island Metro Park and Recreation District’s recreation services director. “We took a step back and had to start raising money again.”

In recent months a fresh round of fund-raising and a renewed commitment from the Park Board has pushed the often frustrated four-year effort close to completion.

Despite a drizzle outside, it was dry in the transmitter building Thursday as volunteers prepared to add a layer to the padding for gymnastics on the 3,100 square-foot main floor.

With an electric elevator and hand rails still to be installed, DeMeyer hopes to have a “soft opening” for the facility Jan. 22, followed by a grand opening in February.

The opening will allow several of the park district’s winter programs to be moved to Battle Point.

Volunteers hope the renovated building will be a boon for the gymnastics program, which has squeezed classes for 2,700 young tumblers into a high school gym. With the new space and a central location for its office, gymnastics coordinator Bryan Garoutte said his program will have room to grow.

“It should alleviate all of the overcrowding we have,” he said.

Gymnastics will be joined by activities for all ages in the transmitter building, including an indoor play park for toddlers, youth soccer and martial arts and adult exercise.

A multifunctional facility was the goal when the park district partnered with a volunteer task force to revitalize the building. When they began work in January 2004, the disheveled building had only one function: storage.

“There was water coming in, and birds,” DeMeyer said. “It was a pretty gnarly building back then.”

In the 1940s the transmitter building was an integral part of the Navy’s radio system on Bainbridge during WWII. Dispatches from Fort Ward were relayed to the Pacific fleet via an 800-foot-tall antenna at Battle Point.

“You come up the front steps and there’s that big wide open room, it was filled with great big transmitters,” said Vince Wolf, who served as a radioman first class at Battle Point from 1946-1948.

The building was decommissioned in the 1950s and in the following decades the antenna and radio equipment were removed. In 1972 the park district adopted the 90-acre parcel as part of the Federal Land for Parks program.

The nearby antenna station was transformed into an astronomical observatory but the transmitter building sat neglected and over the next 30 years was used as a repository for miscellaneous park equipment.

During rains the concrete basement often became a pool.

“There were times when I would be in water up to my knees wading around looking for something,” DeMeyer said.

Renovation began with a cleanup to remove stored park relics and debris, and a work party to to replace the leaky roof.

Local architect Dana Webber volunteered her time to design the remodel, and with the input of islanders like Wolf who had served at Battle Point, tried to preserve historic features and maintain its muted military color schemes.

Wolf said he was glad to see the neglected building finally getting use.

“I think it’s great. That building sat out there for so long when it could have been used for something,” he said. “The people who have worked on it have done a great job as far as I can tell.”

Crews patched the concrete walls and installed a new restroom, entryway and floor on the main level.

As work progressed it became clear that no task would be simple when working on a building built like a bomb shelter, and staying on budget would be impossible.

Plumbing, window and wiring work required layers of concrete to be stripped away, and by the time electrical work was completed last year, the price of metal had risen nearly 50 percent from the start of the project.

Volunteers struggled to maintain a steady enough trickle of funds to float the project. The original target budget was $275,000, but setbacks and rising materials cost ballooned total costs to more than $390,000.

The park district and volunteers organized phone-a-thons, baseball games, music festivals and haunted Halloween parties at Battle Point to supplement Parks Foundation contributions and grants.

Still, in the summer of 2007 the project seemed to be moving backward. The first roof replacement appeared to be failing, and had to be re-tarred. Then water was discovered seeping through the already-patched walls into the drywall, forcing a $10,000 repair job and drying up the project’s remaining funds.

The renovation team went back to fundraising and found some promising grant opportunities, then received a boost when the park board said it would ensure funding if grants weren’t awarded.

With funding secured and the electric elevator already on its way to the island, the renovation is now scheduled to meet what Garoutte ruefully called its “third or fourth deadline.”

The project was originally conceived as the first of a multi-phase renovation, with a second phase to reclaim the soggy basement as a meeting room.

But after four years of hard work, heartbreaking setbacks and a constant scrap for cash, volunteers are happy to rest on one success.

“We are ready to move on to the next phase,” DeMeyer said. “Opening the building.”

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