WALLA WALLA — Dan Johnson was the first in the driver’s seat this morning and he was more than ready.
Up, up, up went the claw of the excavator belonging to Richardson Excavation, as grown men stood nearby and watched with the wonder of little boys.
With a shift of joysticks in the cab, Johnson maneuvered the arm forward and — CRUNCH — went a window. A second bite with the claw brought down a section of wall, plywood bouncing on the concrete below, as those gathered whooped.
“No wonder it was cold in that office. Look at that insulation,” Johnson remarked as he exited the heavy machinery.
A glance revealed no insulation amongst the rubble.
Today was demolition day for the property bought by the YMCA half a dozen years ago from the Walla Walla School District in anticipation of future need for space. The building sitting on it, awaiting today’s destruction, was the district’s headquarters for its support services.
Those included maintenance, food services, transportation and the warehouse. And Johnson’s office since he began working for the district in 1987, the director of facilities and operations said.
His department and others moved to the district’s new building on Entley Street about 18 months ago, leaving behind a work place that sometimes bordered on dangerous due to heavy industrial traffic, Johnson said.
Although a walk this morning through his old stomping grounds brought back memories for him and some of his staff, the building needs to come down, he added. “It’s bittersweet. Mostly sweet, though.
“It’s going to be nice to see it completely gone. It will be a great asset for the community.”
Just what the YMCA is thinking, said Randy Grant, executive director for the nonprofit organization. After bidding the school district’s lease of the building a final goodbye, he and his board of directors began developing ideas for possible use of the area, now referred to by the Y as the annex property.
Initially considered was space for classes, events and storage, but the old building had too many problems, including asbestos and plumbing problems, explained Rachelle Flanik, facility director for the YMCA.
Plus there was the issue of Y members, including kids, having to cross busy Park Street to access the annex. “It was just not usable space for us. We weren’t really doing a lot with it except for storage.”
With that idea crossed out, it made the decision to start with a blank canvas easier, Grant said. The property, just under three acres, holds a lot of opportunity to serve the community. To that end, the Y board will do a needs survey and assessment to decide which options get a green light.
Ball fields, indoor water park, a multipurpose sports complex, classrooms for cooking and science education — every department has a vision of what should fill the space, Flanik said. “I think once the building is down and people see the size of that lot, people will have all kinds of opinions.”
It will come down to what will give the community and the YMCA the greatest service and will be sustainable financially, Grant said.
This morning was about less long-term matters, however. Under the guidance of Jay Richardson, Grant took over the controls to yank down half a wall, looking a little nervous as the machine bucked and reared.
“I still say dynamite would work better,” Mike Ellis speculated. Now retired, Ellis was employed by the YMCA for more than 50 years, starting at 25 cents an hour as a towel boy, he recalled.
Before that, he had spent much of his senior year at Walla Walla High School in the agricultural shop, housed in this very building, he explained, sipping a cup of hot coffee in the morning chill. “The instructor made me shop foreman, I was always telling everyone what to do.”
Saying goodbye to where that happened was just fine with Ellis. “I think it’s great.”
Johnson, preparing to go back to his real work, dropped his hard hat in a box and took one last look. Today felt good, he said with a broad smile. “It’s awesome.”