Thursday, May 22, 2014
Georgetown residents fighting to keep the Howard Gymnasium open won a victory Wednesday, as the Health, Education and Leisure Committee of the Georgetown County Council voted unanimously to recommend to the full County Council that the restoration of the Howard Center include a basketball gym.
The committee, consisting of four of the seven members of the County Council, agreed to allow a planned multi-purpose room in the renovated Howard Center to be used for athletic activities, providing there were no insurmountable engineering problems with the change.
“We need to be able to support everyone’s needs,” said Councilman Bob Anderson, who serves on the Health and Leisure Committee with County Council Chairman Johnny Morant, Councilwoman Lillie Jean Johnson and Councilman Jerry Oakley.
About 60 community members were in attendance, quietly but anxiously awaiting the committee’s decision.
Previously, citizens had appealed to the County Council to reverse its decision to permanently close the Howard Gymnasium, saying the gym was an outlet for youth to keep them off the streets. They also voiced concern for children’s safety if they had to walk to the Beck Center for athletics programs that had been eliminated at the Howard Center in county plans to make the center a gathering place for social and community events.
Everett Carolina, a leader in the movement to save the Howard gymnasium, said the committee’s recommendation was a victory for Georgetown children.
“I knew it wasn’t too late. I knew there was hope. This is wonderful news for the children of the community,” he said.
Councilman Anderson was concerned with architectural and engineering problems that might occur with a change to include athletics programs at the Howard Center.
But, he said, “I think you know what direction that I am going in, and if there are no major engineering problems, I think we should look into this.” He also pushed County Administrator Sal Hemmingway and Director of Parks and Community Services Beth Goodale for an exact figure on what had been spent to date at the Howard Center.
Hemmingway said the proposed change in plans could cost about $45,000. The overall Howard Center renovation is expected to cost about $3 million.
Hemingway also said, “In light of the concerns that were brought to the council at the last regular meeting, I thought it would be good to backtrack and look at how the renovations at the Howard facility became a part of our Capital Improvement Plan.”
He referred to the renovations as “Vision I that began in the late 90’s, and Vision II that began in 2004.” He noted that the current Capital Improvement Plan was adopted in December 2007.
Hemingway said that was put on a spreadsheet that spanned 15 years into the future, and was called The Howard Projects. “Those plans,” he said, “have always been flexible.”
Goodale described a facility to the committee that would provide the community and region with a “vibrant hub in which programs and events of all kinds may be held.”
In a recent interview with the Times, Goodale had said there would be “no athletic activities” at the renovated Howard facility.
On Wednesday, Goodale informed the committee that the renovated facility would provide the opportunity to host a wide range of, “business, cultural, community, athletic, and social activities under one roof.”
Goodale described in a written document presented to the committee the potential programming opportunities that would be available once the facility was opened.
Under the athletic heading, Goodale listed: “various classes, programs and competitions, dance, aerobics, karate, twirling, cheerleading, ping pong, walking, arthritis exercise, yoga, tumbling, corn hole, etc.”
With no mention of basketball, the crowd began to mumble and shift in their seats. The crowd reacted with curious looks and mumbled reactions when Goodale suggested to the committee that the renovated space would be suitable for funerals.
Other than the final vote, the strongest reaction came when Goodale responded to a question by Councilman Morant regarding lost programming. When Morant asked if the addition of a gym would prohibit any of the activities that she had mentioned earlier, Goodale responded, “It would just mean that we would have different programming and we would have a different audience.”
Councilwoman Lillie Jean Johnson, who chairs the committee, urged the city and county to work together not only on the building but the funding of the new Howard facility. She called for a “countywide plan for all.”
Johnson formally moved that the committee recommend to the County Council that the Howard facility renovation move forward and include a gym that will serve as a multi-purpose facility.
The motion passed unanimously to loud applause from the gallery audience.
The committee’s recommendation will now go before the full county council for a vote next month.