Chapel Hill: Opinion

Bonnie Hauser and David Caldwell: Community the key to community-center success

By Bonnie Hauser and David Caldwell


It’s budget season, and Orange County leaders are planning future capital assets.

Every year, the commissioners deliberate over millions of dollars for larger county offices with centralized services, while communities clamor for resources that are closer to home.

There are signs county leaders are starting to listen.

It started with the Rogers Road Community Center, which opened last year. That community next to the now-closed Orange County Landfill is demonstrating that a simple 5,000 square foot building can be an oasis for serving kids, seniors and families. With little patience for government programs and bureaucracies – this group is fueled with passion and an unwavering commitment to families and the vitality of its community.

A phone, a couple of computers, wi-fi, and working/meeting spaces offer a welcoming setting for teachers, social workers, and health-care professionals to work side-by-side with community leaders to serve the community. Trust is key – and creates an ideal setting for quality services and outreach. Eventually, St. Paul AME Church will add affordable housing, a wellness/conference center, and a health clinic.

Collectively, it’s community building at its finest.

The secret to the Rogers Road model is that the community controls the key. Community volunteers staff the center – and if you call, it’s likely that a friendly voice, not voicemail, will answer the phone. The community runs the center under contract with the county, and has unfettered access eight or more hours a day, six days a week.

The center is so popular that discussions are underway to expand hours for even more community-run events and programs. There’s even talk about paid support – with the community controlling the staffing and funds.

Contrast the Rogers Road center to the community center in Efland – which generally sits empty.

The Efland center is locked – unless the county sponsors an event or the neighbors pay a $75 fee. If the center is open, a paid county employee must be present. Even the computers supplied by the county are secured and rarely used.

The new $3 million Cedar Grove Community Center seems destined to a similar fate. During its planning, local residents successfully preserved the building’s important heritage – but didn’t come to an agreement with the county about services, fees or who controls the key.

In their latest work session, county leaders finally acknowledged these issues, and added predictable rhetoric about commissioner-controlled boards and the costs of staffing – but no specifics yet. Thank goodness they are leaving time for communities to weigh in – and offer own vision for how things might work. The county can help get things started, but we all win when a community takes ownership of its center and services.

Communities naturally form and flourish locally, and community centers can be effective portals for county and other services. It’s possible that large county offices will become obsolete – while our communities will grow stronger and more resilient.

It's a capital investment that makes sense to me – human capital.

Bonnie Hauser lives in Orange County. David Caldwell of the Rogers-Eubanks Neighborhood Association contributed to this article.