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Rainier wants to expand

During last year’s legislative session, Rainier School faced budget recommendations and proposed budget amendments that threatened to shut down the facility for the developmentally disabled.

Those threats eventually failed, but this year Rainier School faces a challenge that is a different side of the same legislative coin: building itself into a more necessary service to the community and state.

State Sen. Pam Roach organized a tour group of potential stakeholders to the Department of Social and Health Services facility Sept. 27. Those stakeholders ranged from the Buckley Youth Activity Center to local advocates for homeless teens and the American military.

“We’re looking at Rainier School as a property for other uses,” Roach said to the group during a pretour meeting. “Not uses to displace the facility, but in addition to what the school already offers.”

The tour focused on unused and underused facilities on the campus. Roach and staff expressed particular interest in a vacated basement underneath the campus’s Evergreen building. Until sometime in the 1980s, that basement was used as a government-operated emergency shelter, storing blankets, food and water in rooms off the corridors. It was for reactivating that function that Roach and staff were interested in it, Roach said.

“I’ve said before that those of us on the Plateau should have some food and water storage in case something ever happens,” she said. “If the bridges went out, we would be entirely cut off from the surrounding areas. If that happens, grocery shelves will be empty in two days. That’s one area where a centralized safe place could be a good idea.”

Other examined areas of the campus included the dental office and health care center, the gym, the canteen and its adjacent bowling alley, the swimming pool, the empty Cedar building basement and the power plant.

The health care center is closed to day-to-day use. The dental facility is still used and open for campus use four days a week. Lindquist Dental, a nonprofit dental care organization, uses the facility on Fridays to provide care to minors. Buckley Mayor Pat Johnson mentioned that partnership as an example of a successful partnership between Rainier School and an outside organization.

Rainier Superintendent Neil Crowley said he “cannot think of a reason” facilities like the basketball gymnasium, the Canteen activity center and cafeteria, or the bowling alley could not be rented for outside use. Johnson played basketball on campus with neighbors as a young girl, she said.

Buckley’s Youth Activities Center is a potential interested party in renting those facilities, Activities Coordinator Ellen Boyd said. Boyd also expressed interest in the pool, which was closed years ago due to the expense of maintaining it, but acknowledged that might not be a possibility.

One reason the Rainier School has so many unused and underused facilities is the shift in its population. Currently there are fewer than 400 residents – most of them in cottage-style group houses – living on an 80-acre facility originally laid out with buildings meant to cater to a much larger population.

“More treatment for developmentally disabled persons is being done out in the community and there’s a view that all such care should be done in the community,” said Diane Larsen, the parent coordinator and legislative liaison for Pierce County Coalition for Developmental Disabilities. “But (residential habilitation centers) like Rainier are necessary for their residents, and an important resource for parents of developmentally disabled children in the community.

“Rainier has a whole lot of property and underutilized space, and there’s a current divide between (residential habilitation centers) and the community. What would be great is to take expertise in RHCs and take it out to community.”

Roach echoed the sentiment that Rainier could engage in more community partnerships so it would have more demonstrable value to parties that would otherwise call for its closure, like in 2009. But legislation to approve such partnerships would have to be written relatively soon, Roach said.

“The closer you get to January, the more legislation gets clogged up in the pipeline,” she said.

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