Twice before this community center has outgrown its confines. It was a log house for a time where Girl Scouts met, then a military barrack rescued from Donaldson Air Force Base. This is the history that Nicholtown resident Yvonne Reeder tells of the Nicholtown Community Center to show how it’s always been an integral part of life here. Like most of Greenville’s community centers, the brick building on Rebecca Street was built in the 1970s, in a style that can be best described as uniform and basic, with a classroom or two, kitchen and covered basketball court.
From the outside, on a gray weekday morning, it’s not much to look at, sunk down at the bottom of a hill, across the street from a line of squat row houses. One lone street light hangs above a battered sidewalk. If not for the sign — Nicholtown Community Center — and the city emblem squeezed in next to the words, you would probably drive right by without noticing it. But inside, there is much more happening. It’s the second week of August, and summer camp is still in full swing. Octavia Jones, the center’s director, answers the phone with a cacophony of children’s voices in the background. She sounds a little tired, but who can blame her? There was a field trip yesterday, another one today to Lakeside Water Park, and tomorrow the older boys are off to the movies while the younger kids go on a bike ride through the neighborhood. Scenes from summer camps like this one in Nicholtown are being found in city community centers across Greenville. They’ve long been a mainstay in parks and recreation programming, along with senior and after-school activities. And for years, those programs have managed to keep the centers busy and fruitful. Then participation declined, along with the city’s interest in them.
After many discussions to revitalize the five centers — Nicholtown, Bobby Pearse, David Hellams, Juanita Butler and West Greenville — action in the past has been stalled after city officials found it would take millions of dollars to modernize them and between $9 million and $16 million to build new ones. Instead, money set aside for a building fund has been used to pay for a walking trail — $400,000 in 2007 and another $100,000 in 2009, according to city documents, while upgrades to the facilities in recent years have been minimal. Now, the old treatment of community centers could be changing. With more than $1 million in hand to renovate David Hellams, extended hours and innovative programs being thrown into the stream, the city hopes to overhaul its community centers into a more relevant service. Some centers, though, may not make the cut.
At one point, the role of community centers in Greenville looked grim. Staff was stretched, centers provided little more than basic services, and even some of those were poorly attended, said Dana Souza, city parks and recreation director. “The community centers on a weekly basis were really open from 2:30 in the afternoon until 6 p.m.,” Souza said. That meant parents coming home from work didn’t have a place to send their children. Access to free amenities like computer labs and basketball courts were closed off from the neighborhoods they were supposed to be serving at a time when lights were still blazing inside the YMCA and new Kroc Center.
So last summer, Souza introduced a formula to revamp the centers without the expense of actual construction. He called it reactivation. By working in fee-based programs with outside instructors for Jazzercise, karate at West Greenville and swing dancing at the Sears Center, Souza was able to change staff schedules to keep some centers open until 8 p.m. and on Saturdays. Senior activities that were scattered across five facilities were then consolidated into one program at David Hellams, which was chosen because it had one feature the others didn’t — a wheelchair lift. Now participation averages between 40 to 50 seniors, Souza said.
“When each one of the community centers delivered a very small program, it just wasn’t an efficient delivery of service,” he said. Efficient and quality are the two words city staff used most to describe this overhaul. At the Bobby Pearse Center, supervisor Jonathan Jones is tasked with trying out new programs that competitors don’t offer. Things like a writing workshop, guitar lessons, flag football and pickleball, which is sort of like playing ping-pong on a tennis court. Some programs haven’t worked out, and those were discarded. “We’re stepping out and trying new things,” Jones said. “A lot of them are taking off and some of them aren’t, but we’re definitely using the centers as much as possible.”
Important, too, is continuing the programs that the centers are doing well. The city’s after-school “study buddies” now focuses more on tutoring, and instructors have ranged from doctoral candidates to retired teachers and dual-master’s degree-holders. Registration now fills up within 10 minutes at Bobby Pearse. It’s a vast improvement over past after-school programs, said City Councilwoman Amy Ryberg Doyle, where the children spent more time outside throwing rocks in the park than studying.
The revamp has also meant scaling back from the Juanita Butler Center off Augusta Street, which a nonprofit leases to provide therapy to youth, and taking over the Sears Shelter, now the new home for swing dance and Zumba. The last piece to the new programming is the neighborhood sports teams that Souza hopes will be rolled out next spring. Officially, it was known as the Greenville Police Youth Softball League, but mostly it was a group of police officers who took the time to round up kids from their patrol areas and coach them for a few hours. Friendships were made, and so were rivalries. Samuel Smith, a Nicholtown resident who was on the force in the 1990s and coached the Woodland Homes Warriors, said teams would practice at the community centers and, sometimes, if practice fell during duty, the officers would get substitutes to work their shifts. In June, there was a tournament. Family filled the stands. Everyone got a trophy, and the kids didn’t have to pay for a thing.
Finding the money
New programs and longer hours can only go so far. A key issue with the city’s community centers is that all five are in need of renovations simply to be brought up to standard. West Greenville’s indoor gym has no AC, carpet is duct-taped to the floor at David Hellams and all of the centers need better visibility, outdoor lighting and parking lots. “It’s always a tough discussion to have when you have several community centers that all need equal amounts of care. How do you prioritize which one?” Souza said.
For now, the priority is on David Hellams, which is the third-largest of the centers at 5,803 square feet. More than $1.04 million has been set aside to improve the facility. A new wheelchair-accessible entrance will be added. So will a fitness room. Walls will be removed to make way for windows, and the computer lab, which is more suited for children, will also be renovated, Souza said. Doyle said City Council chose to start with David Hellams because it serves an area where there’s a lack of service. Still, she wants to see if participation at the center improves before the city pours money into fixing up another. “What the city has to look at as a whole is how relevant they are in each neighborhood,” Doyle said. “I don’t think we can continue to do the community center business the way that we’ve been doing it.” For example, it doesn’t make sense to spend public money on the West Greenville program when the Kroc Center just invested $60 million in the area to serve that same population. Doyle believes what the city has done with the Juanita Butler Center may set the tone for these facilities in the future. If a nonprofit can come in and do a better job than the city when it comes to providing certain services, then it might be time to either close the center’s doors or lease it to another agency. “Someone needs to be very honest, and we need to look at this critically and do things well where we can do things well,” she said. That could mean turning the centers into a more park-like space, with restrooms, water fountains, park benches and gazebos people can use for birthday parties. “We shouldn’t have a building open simply because a handful of people are using it on an annual basis,” Doyle said. As it is, the city will spend about $1.22 million of the general fund on community centers this fiscal year, not including the $400,000 in capital improvements for David Hellams. It doesn’t seem like a lot in a $131 million budget but, Doyle said, that money could also be spent on building sidewalks and paving roads — programs that both received less funding this year. Parks and recreation staff are now working to release a year-long report that will detail exactly how the community centers are being used. Everything from drop-in numbers to program participation, shelter rentals and the income level of the participants has been recorded, Souza said.
In the past, those numbers only reflected how many people were enrolled in actual programs, and each participant was only counted once, according to Reeder, president of the Nicholtown Neighborhood Association. It didn’t show how churches used the center for basketball or football. It didn’t show that the Nicholtown Spinners held a program there or that the association uses it for free computer classes and a diabetes support group. “The existing center that we have now is stretched to its seams,” Reeder said. “We’re trying to bring back to the neighborhood what it’s like to be a neighbor. Closing the center, she said, is not an option. “We refuse to even discuss that.” While they’re not much to look at from the street, Souza knows that the city’s community centers can still serve residents in a modern, relevant way. They are all built in the very heart of a neighborhood for people who needed them most, and that shouldn’t change, Souza said.