10/07/12 — Citizens question center location

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Citizens question center location

By Ty Johnson
Published in News on October 7, 2012 1:50 AM

Goldsboro's answer to its W.A. Foster Recreation Center problem is a nonstarter for residents who live near Mina Weil Park, the proposed location for a new center.

The days are numbered for the building Parks and Recreation Director Scott Barnard has repeatedly said is "held together with love," and has locks a building attendant said sometimes "need an act of Congress" to open, but the Goldsboro City Council wants to build a replacement.

About a dozen people showed up for the Parks and Recreation Department's meeting Wednesday at Carver Heights Elementary to talk about the proposed center, including what amenities they would like to see in a new facility, but the crowd of mostly senior citizens really wanted it known that they did not want the center anywhere near their homes.

The current center's director, Gladys McClary, offered insight into programs W.A. Foster offers, with Recreation Superintendent Felicia Brown citing statistics that show the facility is frequented by 350 to 600 people weekly.

In addition to the cooking and ceramics classes, aerobics and senior activities, the center's primary draw is basketball. Members of the city staff said they especially are aiming to target men ages 19 to 30, a demographic that frequents the court.

The city needs to replace that building, however, due to the discovery of widespread asbestos throughout it, which prevents expansion. Staff members began looking for possible locations earlier this year, but aimed to keep the new center as close as possible to the original site to continue to serve its nearby patrons, namely students at Carver Heights and Dillard Middle School.

The city made an offer on land on Herman Street near Elm Street owned by the Southern District Convocation of the United Holy Church of America.

The convocation previously operated Branch Tabernacle and United Christian College on the property facing Gulley Street, which is adjacent to the properties about which the city inquired.

Based on tax value, the city offered the church about $70,000 for the two tracts of land, which the register of deeds office values at a little more than $30,000 combined.

The convocation's counteroffer was for the city to purchase all of the land as one parcel, including the property where the church's two buildings stand. The cornerstone of the larger structure indicates it was built in 1942, just a few years after W.A. Foster.

Buying two more old, likely asbestos-filled, buildings wasn't in the city's best interest, especially since the convocation wanted in excess of $700,000 for the three properties, so the city began evaluating other options.

The city contacted a handful of property owners in the area who had adjacent property in hopes that they could purchase several smaller lots on which to build a new center, but there was little to no response.

Staff members then began evaluating the possibility of building at Mina Weil Park on property the city already owns.

Staff also said building there would result in maintenance cost savings, but those at the community meeting wanted nothing to do with a recreation center in their neighborhood.

Residents near the park, which runs on the north side of House Street east from its intersection with John Street, threw a litany of reasons at Barnard and Mayor Pro Tem Chuck Allen explaining why the center wouldn't be a good fit for the area.

Some asked why it couldn't be combined with the city's proposed downtown recreation center, while others voiced complaints that property owners hadn't been adequately informed about the community meeting.

The downtown recreation center was a $10 million project the City Council spent $1.2 million to design as a replacement for the community center at the corner of Walnut and William streets, which burned down in 2004. The council voted to scrap the project in April 2010.

Barnard said, though, that Goldsboro wouldn't be a good fit for a single, central recreation center and added that he would prefer the city develop a long-term plan with multiple, smaller community centers.

That would allow for patrons, especially children, to walk to the centers, but that was another point that appeared contentious.

"Most parents have cars now, and if they want their kids to go there, they can drive," one resident said. "We're concerned about our community."

Others voiced concerns about the lack of police patrols in the area, which they said would become an issue if there's an increase in foot traffic, even as Allen and Barnard hinted that a center would likely merit an increased police and city staff presence.

Suggestions that the Boys and Girls Club facility was sufficient for the needs of the youths and that the city had wasted its insurance collections from the community center fire -- money the city never received.

Although the center's board of trustees had said they would contribute $1 million of the $2 million settlement to a downtown recreation center, when the city's plans fell through, they dedicated those funds to erecting the Veterans Memorial.

James Johnson, one of the more vocal speakers at the meeting, suggested the city lowballed the United Holy Church when it first made an offer on its properties and suggested the city officials return to the table to talk about acquiring that property, which is just three blocks east of the current W.A. Foster facility.

Allen explained that the original offer, which was for only the two vacant lots, came along with an offer to appraise the land to determine a fair price, but the two sides appeared too far apart to continue negotiations.

Johnson, who later admitted he is a member of that church, continued to insist the city strike a deal with the church, even after Barnard and Allen said the suggestion to use Mina Weil would also save the city a great deal in taxpayer money that would need to be used to acquire additional property.

The seniors in the crowd said Mina Weil was the only city park that families could feel safe in and that a recreation center would bring members of the "sagging age" to the neighborhood, referring to young adults whose pants sag below their waist. That would lead to an increase in crime, they insisted, citing the city's recent surge in violent crime among young adults.

They also said they go to the Senior Center for recreational activities and don't need a center near them.

A mother of five said her children wouldn't use it, but later said if the facility was more like the Goldsboro Family YMCA -- and nowhere near her house -- she could see her family patronizing it.

Location, the group said, was important for the center, so long as that location wasn't near their community, especially since they said the park wasn't frequented by children who walk there.

"I'm not sure it would be as accessible as you think," one woman said.

Johnson, however, asked about plans that had circulated showing that Barnard's staff would be interested in converting Mina Weil Pool, which lags far behind Peacock Pool in attendance, into splash pads, fountain-like water attractions that feature little to no standing water.

"Why would you do that?" Johnson asked. "These kids can't go to the Y."

Barnard explained that splash pads are more popular, less costly and carry less liability than pools.

Johnson then turned to ask about tax money being spent on the Center Street Streetscape project.

"If you're going to take my money from me ... at least give us something," he said, asking for a center that citizens could be proud of -- one far away from Mina Weil Park and preferably on his church's land.

Barnard attempted to end the meeting by asking what those gathered would like to see in a recreation center, no matter its location.

More comparisons to the Family YMCA were thrown out, along with requests that it cater to every demographic -- from children to senior citizens.

The focus quickly turned back to location, though, as citizens said the bus system and high density of cars in the city allow most people to do what they want to do -- including going to a recreation center no matter how far away it is from their house or school.

Johnson launched one more attack on the Mina Weil option, saying that there was stipulation he had discussed with the late Mayor Hal Plonk that would not allow a center to be constructed at Mina Weil Park, citing an attempt earlier in the city's history that was thwarted by a covenant associated with the land donation from the Weil family.

District 4 Councilman the Rev. Charles Williams, who has always been a supporter of the park, said he had no recollection of any stipulation or attempt to construct a center previously at the park.

David Weil, who was involved with the deeding process at the park, said he had no recollection of any previous recreation center plans at Mina Weil and made no mention of any stipulation barring one.

Allen stressed throughout the meeting that no decision had been on a location, but that the council is intent on rebuilding the facility.

"The City Council is absolutely committed to building it," he said.