Alyssa Johnstone drives by the old O’Callahan’s restaurant building in Key Center every morning on her way to work.
For the lifelong Key Peninsula resident, it has been a reminder of some of the good times she had there in her earlier years when the building was a thriving bar and restaurant.
The mother of four looks at it a little differently these days as she goes by: less as a memory of the past and more for its potential in the future.
Johnstone, who helps run Brilliant Beginnings, an early learning center in Lakewood, is looking at the property as a potential new home for a daycare to meet the growing population on the KP.
And though it doesn’t look like a spot someone would want to drop their kids off today, she said it has all it needs to make it a special place.
Single-level building with ample square footage. Check. Commercial kitchen. Check. Bathrooms with multiple stalls. Check. Fenced-in yard space for playground. Check. Property for future expansion. Check.
“Those are the certain boxes you need to check for a daycare, and there’s not a lot of buildings that check all those boxes,” Johnstone said, adding that a new building meeting all those specifications would cost millions.
Transforming this long-vacant building would be a win-win for both Johnstone and its current owner, the Key Peninsula Fire District.
KPFD has been under fire since it bought the property for double its assessed value at the end of 2021. The property was not appraised or inspected before KPFD bought it, but the Pierce County Assessor-Treasurer’s tax valuation was $473,600. KPFD paid $950,000.
The district also purchased the Olson estate behind it, consisting of a residence and pasture, for another $1.175 million with the intent of using the properties for a new headquarters, training facility, community rooms and a health clinic. KPFD leased the O’Callahan’s building to a prospective restauranteur in 2022, but that deal ultimately fizzled out.
That deal also cost the district more money: $2,500 plus expenses as a “goodwill gesture” to the tenant to forestall any potential claim after the district terminated the lease at the end of 2022, and $20,000 the then-property manager allegedly paid itself improperly for signing the tenant. The district sued the former property manager, Randy Boss of Harborside Management LLC, in April to reclaim that money. The district confirmed but would not comment on the status of the lawsuit for this report.
Johnstone approached the fire department in September about leasing the building, but after learning of the additional expenses to fix it she would have to invest, she decided buying was a more viable option.
“It’s not in a great state,” she said of the building. The district has already spent more than $20,000 on repairs since it was bought in 2021 and said it will take another $50,000 to fix the roof and septic system. She said KPFD, in particular Chief Nick Swinhart, has been very open about the known issues with the building and has shared results from their recent feasibility studies.
The two sides have not agreed on a purchase price, but that may come as early as this month.
“I hope to get through the negotiations pretty quickly,” said Johnstone, who is also exploring grants, investors and other financial assistance to buy the property. “There’s pressure for (KPFD) to get this location off the books, but I want this to be a partnership during the process. I want to make sure it’s a good deal for them and it’s a good deal for me, so it ends up being a good deal for the community.”
“Community” is very important to Johnstone. Her family is KP through and through. She grew up off of Creviston and graduated from Peninsula High School in 2010. Her husband, Skyler, is a Longbranch native and two of their four kids, ranging from 11 weeks to 11 years old, attend Evergreen Elementary. She plans to hire local during the remodeling process and work with the community so the very visible and accessible space in front of the building can be used on the weekends to support things like farmers markets and food truck gatherings. Johnstone hopes tired parents swing by the coffee shops nearby after dropping off their kids and grab some items for dinner at the grocery store across the street before picking them up.
But Johnstone knows getting into a building is just half the battle. Once remodeling begins she will start the process to get her early learning program license through the state Department of Children, Youth & Families, which takes at least 90 days. She hopes to finish construction no later than July.
Johnstone is up for the challenge. If all goes according to plan, the new daycare will be up and running for the fall 2024 school year. “The amount of work this will take will not make me shy away from doing something I love and want to do,” she said.
About 70 children five and under will be able to use the early learning center, and she mentioned that about 40% of the families who live in the area qualify for DCYF subsidies to help pay for childcare.
Johnstone is shooting for about six classrooms to support infants, toddlers and waddlers, preschool and pre-kindergarten students. She expects her daycare to create about 15 new jobs in the area.
Johnstone said students will have a structured curriculum based on milestones and will work on gross motor skills for infants, and social and emotional skills for the preschoolers. “My goal is to have all of the students kindergarten-ready for Evergreen, Minter Creek and Vaughn teachers.”
Johnstone is excited to bring her four years of experience leading daycares, including the last three with one a similar size to what she wants to create, to Key Center and eventually be a staple in the community.
“When I drive by this building and its location — I’m in love with it,” she said. “This is a career that feeds my soul, and the more I can get the community behind me the better this will be for the Key Peninsula.”
Johnstone’s plan is supposed to be presented to the fire commission at one of its board meetings this month.
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