Community angry at loss of gymnasium

  • Friday, May 2, 2014

Concerned about the exclusion of a gymnasium at the renovated Howard Center, a very emotional group gathered at the AME Church on Highmarket Wednesday evening.

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Ongoing renovations at the Howard Recreation Center have sparked an angry protest from community menbers, who pledged Wednesday evening to converge on the Georgetown County Council with a petition to oppose the exclusion of a gymnasium at the renovated building.

“Howard Gym has been taken away from the black community,” said Carmen Williams at a gathering of about 65 other community members at the AME Church on Highmarket Street Wednesday night.

The community members met to develop a strategy to force the county to include a gymnasium in the $3 million renovation. Many participants were openly upset and angry about the decision to exclude a gym from the renovated building. Many based their concerns on a belief that a gymnasium in that area of the community is critical to keeping youths off the streets and out of trouble.

Georgetown County Parks and Recreation Department Director Beth Goodall acknowledged in an interview Thursday that the renovation does not include a basketball court or other athletic facilities. She said, though, that there are expanded athletic programs at the recently refurbished Beck Recreation Center, and the Howard center will be a diverse community center hosting many activities benefitting the surrounding neighborhoods.

Community residents, however, said they were caught by surprise by the closure of the center for the renovation – and word that it would no longer include a basketball gym. Tupelo Humes, who works at the Georgetown ArcelorMittal Steel Mill and walks past the Howard center daily on his way to work, said there was no notice before the center was shut down for renovation. “The community did not know,” he said. “This was done behind closed doors without the knowledge of anyone in the community.

“Like yourself, I’m still in the dark about what is being done. I’m shocked and upset about what has happened,” Georgetown City Councilman Rudolph Bradley told the group. “But now we need to focus on what we can do to take it (the recreation center) back.” He urged residents to mount a petition drive and present it to the County Council. “At least then you’ll have a record of your concerns,” Bradley said.

Goodall said Thursday the demolition started the first of this year, but the renovation project has been part of the county’s capital improvement plan for several years. There were numerous public meetings regarding the capital improvement plan, and the renovations at Howard were included in those hearings.

Goodall acknowledged there may have been problems with recent communications with the public about the status of the project. “I think people are going to be excited about all the opportunities at both facilities (Beck and Howard),” she said. “I think it is just miscommunication and people didn’t know.”

Goodall pointed out that the entire Howard facility was “being gutted and completely renovated.” What was the gymnasium will now become a large multi-purpose room that can be divided into smaller areas for different activities. Although there will be no athletic faciilites at the renovated Howard Center, Goodall encouraged the community to use the renovated athletic facilities at the Beck Center. “There is plenty of time for anyone to come play basketball,” she said, “The kids play here every day,” Goodall said she has an open door policy: “I welcome anyone in the community to contact me regarding the changes to the Howard center, because I want the community to be as excited about the changes as I am.”

While it was clear from Wednesday’s meeting that community members would be approaching the County Council with a petition, it was not determined when that would occur. Another community meeting is scheduled for Wednesday of next week at the church. Some suggested that County Council members be invited to that meeting.

Collette Drayton said the group should have another meeting before a petition drive is mounted, so word can be spread throughout the community and more people can be involved in the organizing effort.

Rhonda Green said, “Let’s make sure we have all the facts. Let’s do the research and the homework.”

Everett Carolina told the group, “This is a first. I’m proud to have people speak up … All we need to do tonight is come up with the issues we want to address.” John Moultrie, a former county employee, told community members, “If you’re going to take this initiative, make sure you’re in it for the long haul.”

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