Local government leaders and residents cut a big, red ribbon Saturday on the Rogers Road Community Center.
The new center in the growing, working-class neighborhood next to the now-closed Orange County landfill is a victory for those who put up with the county’s garbage for 40 years.
It replaces a neighborhood center that was forced to close two years ago because it lacked a permit and did not meet safety codes.
But Saturday’s ribbon cutting was also a victory of another sort, against ... Velcro.
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More on that in a moment.
You could see the exhales as the crowd gathered in the cold morning air beside the basketball court outside the one-story center.
“This is pretty cool,” said Barry Jacobs, chairman of the Orange County Board of Commissioners. “And not only because of the weather.”
“We did good,” he told the bundled crowd.
The Rogers-Eubanks Neighborhood Association (RENA) asked local governments for the new center, which is on Edgar Street in Habitat for Humanity’s Phoenix Place. The county is leasing the land from Habitat and paying for its upkeep. RENA has an operating agreement with the county to manage it.
The county commissioners approved $650,000 for the 4,000 square-foot building in January, broke ground in May and built the center in just six months.
Despite that haste, County Commissioner Mark Dorosin said he was “a little ashamed” it had taken as long as it did to begin compensating residents who fought for years to rid their neighborhood of the landfill’s traffic, vermin and odors.
“This community center really is a testament to the struggles of the people of this neighborhood,” Dorosin said.
“This is a building,” he continued. “The (true) center of this community lives in the indefatigable spirit of its residents.”
After neighborhood teens Jamesha Phillips and Hailey Caldwell spoke and cut the ribbon, the crowd entered the center for a closer look. A long hallway led to a multipurpose room, library and computer room, classroom and kitchen. A sign-up sheet for a community garden sat on a table.
David Caldwell, with the Rev. Robert Campbell, one of the neighborhood’s most visible leaders, said the center will serve children to senior citizens 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday and be available for other activities at night. A food program through the PORCH organization will help feed 50 families.
Caldwell praised Bishop Ila McMillan Ervin, who opened Faith Tabernacle Oasis of Love to the neighborhood’s after-school program when the old center closed. They expected 25 children and ended up with 40, he said.
The historically African-American neighborhood is changing, Caldwell said, with many ethnic Karen and Burmese refugees and Latinos moving in.
And this is where the Velcro comes in.
“We asked some of these kids, ‘Tell us about your grandparents,’” Caldwell said. “A lot of these kids couldn’t do it.”
“We decided to do something about it.”
On a wall inside the center they will hang photos and tell a little something about the neighborhood children’s history.
It’s not just the newcomers who have difficulty talking about or may not even know their grandparents, said Caldwell, a retired sheriff’s deputy with 13 grandkids of his own.
“It just shows how broken families are in America today,” he said.
“I can date my family back to the 1700s, but we don’t sit down and talk to kids anymore, (ask them) ‘How was your day in school?’ How many kids do you see walking around with untied shoe (laces), because they don’t know how to tie their shoes?
“(We just) get out the Velcro.”
The new center, Caldwell said, will help the neighborhood hold on to its past even as its people move into the future.
“When you stop talking about your history is when you lose your identity,” he said. “We felt so low when we were doing that battle (against the landfill). This is the biggest thing for us, to make sure that doesn’t happen.”