Back in March, a group called Concerned Citizens for Mercer Island Parks created a petition designed to preserve Mercer Island's parks and open spaces for "park use" only. For the Concerned Citizens, "park use" included the construction of baseball fields and artificial turf (i.e., permanent sports stuff) but not performance arts centers (i.e., permanent arts stuff).
If the group could collect 3,000 signatures by June 3, then the matter of whether to build the proposed Mercer Island Center for the Arts (MICA) in Mercerdale Park would go on the November ballot, which would have delayed the construction of MICA and effectively killed Youth Theatre Northwest, the only youth theater on the island and an important institution that has fed Seattle's and the country's theater scenes for more than three decades.
MICA would replace a defunct recycling center that has been languishing in Mercerdale Park for years, its innovative design would complement the park's beauty, and its arts programming would draw more community members into the park. Mercer Island residents wouldn't have to drive over the bridge to see art, parents could take advantage of arts education opportunities, weirdos and queer kids would have a place to escape, and a youth theater would be saved.
But Ira Appelman, the leader of Concerned Citizens, told me back in April that the plan to build MICA was just one more instance of Mercer Island City Council overreach. He and his volunteers took to the streets with clipboards in hand and wrapped their anti-arts initiative in a pro-parks and pro-democracy rhetoric. The organization went so far as to produce a commercial that depicted their opposition and the city council as multicolored cartoon bullies who were trying to kick white-colored cartoon children and a cane-wielding granny out of the park. At the end of the video, the granny transforms into giant and beats the bullies with her cane.
A group called Support Mercer Island Parks and Arts sprang up in response. SMIPA listed a number of counterarguments on its website and launched a campaign to raise awareness about how to "un-sign" the Protect Our Parks petition aimed at those who felt duped by Concerned Citizens. SMIPA's efforts proved successful. Last Friday, the deadline for filing the petitions to put the anti-arts initiative on the ballot passed with no petitions filed.
"The defeat of this petition clearly demonstrates that islanders believe parks in different locations can add value to our community in different ways," SMIPA said in a statement. "Mercer Island voters sent a clear message that our parks should be for all and that arts and parks can successfully work together."
Robynne Parkinson, a lawyer who volunteers for SMIPA, said via e-mail that a number of people un-signed the petition after learning more about the potential fallout of the petition and of MICA's plans. "At last count, there were over a hundred 'un-sign' letters, which is unprecedented," she said.
On Friday, I left a message with Appelman, asking for comment. He hasn't responded as of press time.
Manuel Cawaling, executive director of Youth Theatre Northwest, told me by phone that he feels relieved. For him, the fact that the Concerned Citizens group was unable to gather 3,000 signatures is a heartening sign. "The people of Mercer Island support the arts," Cawaling said.
Next on the agenda: MICA is currently in the middle of an environmental impact review. After that, the organization will try to secure a lease from the city, and, liberated from the threat of cane-wielding granny monsters, continue on with their $20 million capital campaign.
"We're a lot more attractive to funders now that there's more certainty," Cawaling said. "Sure makes the summer look much more exciting."