Community center will be centerpiece of Johnson City

Robert Houk • Sep 4, 2012 at 9:25 AM

If all goes as expected, Johnson City’s new Community Center at Memorial Park will be ready for occupancy on or before Oct. 1. Assistant City Manager Charles Stahl told me last week that will mean the city’s seniors’ center will soon relocate its operations “lock, stock and barrel” to the $15 million facility.

Moving day can’t come soon enough for city staffers and the seniors they serve. A portion of the 67,000-square-foot facility is dedicated totally for seniors. In fact, there is 27,000 square feet reserved for seniors and their programming (that’s 16,000 more square footage than seniors now have at the current facility on East Myrtle Avenue.

Seniors will also have access to a gymnasium, a full service-kitchen and three pools (a warm water pool, a therapy pool and a 25-yard lap pool). There are also rooms for exercise, billiards and arts and crafts in the seniors wing of the new community center. Touring the soon-to-be-completed facility last week, it was hard to remember why its construction was ever so controversial. But it was.

It began with opposition to digging up the old Memorial Stadium to make room for the community center. While there was much support for building a new football stadium closer to the campus of Science Hill High School, there were many old-timers and history buffs who hated the idea of doing away with the old stadium.

The aquatics facility in the new community center is located in what was the eastern end zone of the old football stadium.

Then came opposition to including a seniors’ center as part of the new community center. A group calling itself Save Our Center accused the City Commission of going back on its word to build an $11 million standalone center for seniors.

The city would have likely made good on that promise had it not been for “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named,” who used the building of a new seniors’ center as a ploy in his failed 2007 re-election campaign. If you will recall, former “Commissioner You Know Who” basically brought the whole project to a standstill by suggesting a swimming pool must be added to the new center.

Soon, the projected costs for the proposed facility grew. There was also trouble in finding a suitable location for the new seniors’ center. Finally, City Manager Pete Peterson suggested the city could get more of a bang for its tax dollars by incorporating a new seniors’ center with a community center that would also meet the city’s needs for a new gymnasium and indoor swimming pool.

That idea, however, was attacked by some critics as unreasonable. Opponents said they were afraid seniors would suffer broken hips as a result of getting knocked down by skate-boarding youths who would also be using the facility. Their fears sounded more like the plot from “A Clockwork Orange” than a legitimate complaint. Johnson City does have a skateboard park, but it’s not at the new community center.

Members of SOC were very persistent in their opposition, and often very wrong. They challenged the city’s assertions that there would be a dedicated entrance for seniors at the new community center even though the architect had in fact copied the entrance from the original plans for a standalone center.

There is indeed a covered separate entrance to the seniors’ wing, as well as many other amenities that were part of the original plans for the standalone center. The seniors’ wing can also be locked off by gates from other portions of the facility.

There are also security cameras located in key areas of the facility, as well as a police officer who will be stationed at the center. It will be difficult for “droogs” (Google “A Clockwork Orange” and you’ll get the reference) to make too much trouble in the center.

It will take proper programming to make the community center a success. Johnson Citians of all ages will be using the new facility’s pools, gyms and kitchen — just not all at the same time. The community center will be just that — a center for the entire community.

City officials said they had this fact in mind when they designed the new facility. Community input was used to decide where things such as rest rooms, showers/lockers and concession stands should go. And it will be up to a committee made up of members from the Seniors’ Center Advisory Board, the city’s Parks and Recreation Board and an aquatics advisory council to make sure programs offered at the new center meet the needs of its users.

The facility is being called the Community Center at Memorial Park to honor the history and legacy of the area. I understand that, but I will once again make one small suggestion: Call it the Dr. Hezekiah Hankal Community Center at Memorial Park. He was a minister, educator and physician. He was also the first black man to be elected to office in Johnson City — back in the day when such a thing was sadly unheard of.

Dr. Hankal was a man of many special talents, but he was also a man with a unique vision for Johnson City. It seems only fitting for his name to grace a building that promises to bring all Johnson Citians together.

Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at rhouk@johnsoncitypress.com.

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