Jeriene Grimes, vice president of the Cobb County Chapter of the NAACP, stood before the Marietta City Council on May 8 and demanded it take action on the $1.1 million in 2009 bond funds earmarked for the site.
“We are asking for very little. It shouldn’t have been drawn out to this magnitude,” Grimes said of her need to “stir the discussion” to make sure an immediate plan for the site was approved.
Grimes has been waiting years to see the city make better use of the space, which is near a large African-American church, Turner Chapel.
Grimes said now that the neighborhood is slowly changing to a white majority with newly-built condos, the council is finally willing to address Lawrence Street.
Councilman Anthony Coleman, who represents the area, began publically calling to renovate the center in 1992 as a local pastor.
At that time, before taking on his role with city government, Coleman held a town hall meeting about the lack of attention by the city.
Grimes said there has been no such meeting in recent years.
She said Coleman should do more to steer the focus, including initiating a door-to-door survey around the center.
A haven in the heart of town
Built in the early 1960s, the community center’s heyday was during a time when children rode their bikes through town, according to Parks and Recreation Director Rich Buss.
With the addition of a pool in 1976, the centralized location at 510 Lawrence St. originally was on a road that ran through the heart of Marietta, starting at the Square and passing by City Hall and the post office.
But accessibility is changing as Marietta expands, leaving the city’s youth well outside of walking distance from the Lawrence Street Recreation Center.
Grimes, who has owned the house next door to the center for more than a decade, said she has witnessed offerings at the center dwindle bit by bit, including the pool in 2007.
The gate through the 7-foot chain-link fence surrounding the pool was unlocked Friday, with an overturned metal garbage can serving as a barrier.
Once designed for lap swimming with a high-diving board over the deep end, the area is drained with structural elements exposed, including three life-guard towers.
Grimes, whose adult son now lives at the neighboring residence, said the uncovered pool contains “black water,” which is caused by decomposing leaves collecting at the bottom. The most frequent visitors are rodents.
Buss said as part of a county bond passed in 1996, the city added insulation and adjustable basketball hoops to the gray gymnasium, as well as a small blue playground.
At the back of the 25,000-square-foot facility, an expansive locker room sits abandoned.
Grimes questions why more hasn’t been done.
“Why is that? Because no one said anything. Because it sat in the heart of the African-American community, and we don’t deserve better,” she said.
Service stops for underprivileged kids
The basement at the Lawrence Street Recreation Center is prime space for activities. Buss said the room is occasionally used for arts and crafts or talent shows.
The next room is even larger, but closed off for storage. Neither has heating or air conditioning. Buss said improvements could include making the wide staircase handicap accessible.
Buss said he was told by the City Council “to go out and find a way to operate without substantial increases in cost.”
Other cities have moved to fee-based programming, but that would mean changing the existing model of Lawrence Street, which serves low-income people, Buss said.
By not raising the operating budget with tax money, Buss recently decided to make tough cuts by eliminating the free youth summer camp.
The number of children in the area who used to live in housing projects has declined as the city demolished those units and switched to a voucher system, he said.
Buss decided to stop the free summer camp because commuters from outside of Marietta were dropping young children off before the center opens.
The programs are not designed for child care, Buss said, recommending local families use services through community organizations that offer discounts based on income.
This summer, the Lawrence Street Recreation Center will focus on area teenagers older than 12.
The extended hours from noon to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday will be dedicated to open play time on the basketball court.
Grimes, whose oldest granddaughter would have just become eligible for the free camp this year, said the program “is the only outlet for parents that can’t pay.” Otherwise, children are left at home raising themselves, she said.
‘Wish list’ includes fixing leaky roof
The desire to expand the programs offered at Lawrence Street led Buss to advise the City Council to close the nearby Elizabeth Porter Recreation Center located by the intersection of Fairground Street and North Marietta Parkway.
Buss said the Parks and Recreation Department could then transfer the staff and operational costs from Elizabeth Porter to Lawrence Street.
The Elizabeth Porter Recreation Center, which has a $3.75 million line item from the 2009 parks bond, is in much worse shape, according to Buss, and will require demolition and a new facility in the area, expanding on property the council purchased this year.
At last month’s council meeting, Councilwoman Annette Lewis suggested approaching the Marietta Police Athletic League to run the Lawrence Street Center for the long term. The organization uses sports as a way to positively affect children’s lives.
“They have the ability to get children here with partnerships that bus kids to programs,” Buss said.
Buss said the league provided him with a list of suggestions for improving the site, which he will present the City Council with at its next meeting. The list includes mending the leaky roof, renovations to the kitchen area and changing staff offices into computer labs.
Grimes questions why only one group was approached. “Is there a bid from another nonprofit organization?” she asked.
Grimes said the city being selective with partnerships makes her think updating the Lawrence Street Recreation Center is based on political needs.
“I don’t think it is for us,” she said.
New pool or no pool?
Buss said the Lawrence Street Center is structurally sound and “not as bad as people think.”
It simply needs cosmetic upgrades and electrical improvements for energy efficiency, he said.
During April’s council meeting, Coleman said the building and outside pool should be demolished and a new facility built in its place.
Yet Buss said the bond was never intended for that level of development, which would cost $10 million, take far more time and mean a smaller facility.
Buss said the Lawrence Street site is not a good location for a city pool, given its limited amount of parking.
Grimes said she “absolutely” wants a new pool and said there was never a problem with parking in the past.
“(Buss) is looking for reasons not to do something because he doesn’t live here,” said Grimes.
“It was always nice to see the innocence and carefreeness of children playing in the pool.”
Buss said he is getting an estimate on the cost of demolishing the swimming area, filling in the pool and adding sod.
The area would then allow for a larger playground and possibly other outdoor sports equipment.
Once a final plan is approv-ed, Buss said the project could be completed within six to nine months.
“I think the council has been very deliberative for a good reason,” Buss said about his department’s orders to “stand down” and wait for more discussion on the Lawrence Street Center.
Yet Grimes worries funds for Lawrence Street will be spent on other projects in the meantime. “The biggest problem is funds have been approved, but other projects have taken precedence,” she said.
Buss said delayed action on the center has highlighted the community’s needs as other bond-funded park projects have been built.
“(Lawrence Street) doesn’t sit in a vacuum. It sits in a puzzle of what to do with rec centers as a whole.”