Greenville's community centers need millions to upgrade
JUNE 2, 2011 10:08 a.m. (0)
But the neighborhood facilities that encircle the city’s downtown have deteriorated through years from inattention and deferred maintenance.
All of the centers – West Greenville, Nicholtown, Juanita Butler on Burns Court across from Greenville High, Bobby Pearce on Townes Street Extension and David Hellams on Spartanburg Street – need extensive repairs, have limited or no handicapped accessibility and have drainage issues.
Programming at the community centers has decreased over the past decade, partly because churches, nonprofit organizations and schools have stepped in to provide services for the low- to moderate-income families living nearby and partly because the centers have operated on banker’s hours.
The question now being asked is what role will the community centers play in the neighborhoods and in the city’s recreation program overall and whether the city will keep all five open.
“We’re going to have to make some hard decisions,” said Councilwoman Amy Ryberg Doyle. “I think we’re going to have to make some cuts. The time has come to decide how we want to do recreation in the city of Greenville.”
Reasons for the decline of the city’s community centers are fourfold: the city has focused its attention on Falls Park and the development of a trail system, including the widely popular Swamp Rabbit Trail, the perception that the community centers are just for low- to moderate-income residents in the immediately surrounding neighborhoods, lack of new programs and a multi-million price tag to fix up the centers and the grounds.
Councilwoman Jil Littlejohn said the city’s concentration on Falls Park and other downtown projects was a result of the ability to attract people from throughout the city, county and region.
“I don’t think anybody forgot about the community centers. I just think other things had a higher priority,” she said. “I would hope it wasn’t because of the populations the community center serves.”
Dana Souza, director of the city’s parks and recreation department, said programming has been reduced over the past 15 years and staff was “only expected to maintain the status quo.”
Core programs include after-school programs, senior citizen programming and summer camps.
Souza said new programs were rarely developed and programming to meet the needs of the community was a secondary focus.
“Neither the community nor the city established high expectations for the delivery of recreation services other than maintaining the core programs offered at the community centers and at some athletic fields,” he said.
Now, the recreation department is developing new programs quarterly.
Souza said he wants to give the new method of programming and expanded hours a year before deciding whether to recommend closing any of the centers.
“While the city has great landmark parks, great events and is building a great zoo, the recreation division has not been challenged to elevate its level of services to the entire community until recently,” Souza said.
Littlejohn said successful community centers in other cities serve all city residents, not just low-income residents.
“I want to see us get there,” she said. “I want Greenville to have premier community centers that serve everybody.”
Mayor Knox White said the community centers should be thought of as more than a parks and recreation issue.
“They really are a parks, recreation and economic development issue,” he said.
Funded mostly through President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society plan in the 1970s, the community centers were designed to provide residents in Greenville’s low-income neighborhoods a place they could go for recreation, education and job-training programs within reasonable walking distance.
“They’re old and tired,” said Andy Sherard, one of two consultants hired by the city to analyze community centers’ needs inside and out. “They’re just aged, period.”
Three out of the five centers – West Greenville, Nicholtown and David Hellams -- have not had major work done to them since they were built.
West Greenville, described by consultants as “fortress-like” because of its lack of windows, is the only community center with a gymnasium. But the gym is not air-conditioned and the center has a leaky roof and no handicap-accessible toilet facilities.
Juanita Butler’s roof needs immediate replacement, consultants said.
Nicholtown lacks outside lighting and needs sidewalk repairs, while David Hellams needs to be tested for asbestos, the consultants said. Bobby Pearce has inadequate parking and outdoor lighting along with an outdated interior.
All of the community center grounds have accessibility issues, most of the athletic fields are in major need of attention, some have drainage and erosion problems, parking lots need to be repaired or redone, field lighting is not adequate for league play, outside lighting is lacking and connectivity to adjoining neighborhoods is lacking, Sherard said.
Consultants have estimated it would cost $2.8 million to bring the grounds of the five sites up to standard and another $4.5 million to renovate the centers and extend the life of the buildings 10 to 15 years.
Souza said the city needs to concentrate on building programmatic lives at the centers first.
“I don’t want to build something and they not come,” he said.
Around 45,000 people live within a mile of the city’s five community centers.
In 2010-11, there were 6,418 participants in the community centers’ programs, ranging from after-school programs, book clubs, summer camps, adult fitness programs, computer classes, a senior citizen prom and athletics.
“The community centers have kind of lost their flavor in the neighborhoods,” said Councilwoman Lillian Fleming.
The David Hellams Community Center is the busiest of the five, primarily because of its senior programming. A senior prom attracted 170 of the center’s 822 participants in 2010-11.
The Nicholtown center was the second busiest in 2010-11 with 605 participants. Two-thirds of those were in the center’s dance program.
Bobby Pearce, the smallest center, had 451 participants all year. No program had more than 30 participants and some – such as fly fishing, yoga and aerobics – drew a handful or less.
West Greenville had 149 participants. More than half of those were in the center’s summer day camp and adult fitness class.
Juanita Butler Community Center attracted 50 participants in a summer day camp program, but just 27 participants in other programs all year.
Part of the problem, Souza said, is the centers had been operating its core programs Mondays through Fridays from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m.
“There’s a whole different part of the community that gets home at 5 o’clock,” he said. “If we’re not open on Saturdays and in the evenings, we’ve failed.”
Dog obedience classes at Bobby Pearce attracted people from throughout the city, not just from the North Main area, Souza said. A “Creatures in the Creek” ecology program had participants from all over the city as well, he said.
Souza said new offerings would include adult flag football and a softball league for seniors.
He said the department wants to bring back neighborhood sports leagues. Sports skill programs are also in the works.
Souza said the August opening of the Kroc Center downtown shouldn’t affect the city’s plan to revitalize the community centers.
“The community centers are important to the neighborhoods they exist in,” he said. “There’s a place for us.”
The Kroc Center opens up opportunities for partnerships, he said.
“We don’t want to duplicate what’s already available,” he said. “I think there’s a market out there. People just need to be re-invited to participate.”
Souza said he does not have a specific goal as far as increased participation at the centers. “If we really hit a home run and deliver programs the community wants, the numbers will increase,” he said. “Twenty-five percent would be a pretty significant increase for the first year. I think we can do more than that.”
He said in other cities he’s worked there would be lines out the door when registration opened each quarter. Early registration would have to be held to make sure city residents had a chance to sign up.
“I hope we get there one day,” he said. “We know we have to perform. This is not going to be a stop and start process. The only thing that will stop us is if our best efforts are not giving us the programmatic life we anticipate. We’re not going to fail.”
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