Five Towns Community Center employees, volunteers and neighbors gathered for a meeting on Jan. 25 in the center’s gymnasium with one question on their minds: What’s next?
“The purpose of tonight is very clear,” the Rev. Gregory Stanislau, of St. John Baptist Church in Inwood, said. “We are here to find out what is going on with our community center.”
The building and property at 270 Lawrence Ave., in Lawrence, are owned by Nassau County, which has leased the site to the center since 1974. After 50 years, the lease is set to expire in July 2024, and there has been no offer from the county to renew it. A request for proposals sent out by the county Jan. 2 seeks people or entities to provide youth-oriented activities and services at the facility.
The lease between the county and the center, signed on July 3, 1974, stated that the center would provide health and social services “for the health and welfare of the people in the Five Towns Community.”
Chris Boyle, a spokesman for County Executive Bruce Blakeman, told the Herald on Jan. 20 that the center “has failed to live up to their obligations. Which is problematic.”
K. Brent Hill, the center’s executive director, said the services it provides are approved by the county, and he believes it has met those obligations.
“The county is well aware of everything we’re doing,” Hill said. “As far as I’m concerned, we’ve met our obligations.”
The community center’s offerings include a Head Start educational program for low-income families, aid to the foreign-born, a food pantry and a youth community action center where students in high school can do their homework. There is also a substance-abuse program, a summer camp and an assortment of free classes. In accordance with the lease, the county must approve the center’s services.
It remains unclear what Boyle meant by failed obligations, because he did not respond to follow-up questions.
In its request for proposals, the county says it is seeking an operator to make an initial minimum investment of $5 million to upgrade the building.
Gwynn Campbell, president of the community center board, said that the county never allowed the facility to be self-sustaining. “Our hands were tied,” Campbell said at the Jan. 25 meeting. “We were not able to become sustainable and build capital so that we can take care of ourselves.”
Hill clarified her remarks by adding, “Part of the lease agreement of the Five Towns Community Center is not to charge for any type of services. If an organization wanted to come in and partner with us or rent some space, we are not able to rent some space.”
Other than the summer camp, Hill said, the majority of services the center offers are not fee-based.
According to the lease, the county pays the utility bills, as it has since the agreement was first signed. The RFP states that the county will not do so for the next tenant.
Community member Lakita Steel asked how the county could expect the center to raise $5 million. “If they don’t want us to raise money in here, where else do they want us to get the money?” she said at the Jan. 25 meeting.
County Legislator Carri Solages, who represents the neighborhood, appealed to Blakeman for more openness.
“During the last several months, numerous residents have reached out to express profound concerns about the future of the Five Towns Community Center,” Solages said in a statement. “It is unfortunate that there has been a lack of adequate community outreach in the initial stages of the decision-making process. Moving forward, I urge County Executive Blakeman and his administration to openly communicate with the community and keep their interests and concerns at the heart of their plans.”
Solages has supported the center’s push for a new lease. In 2021, he sent a letter to then County Executive Laura Curran, expressing his concerns about the expiring lease. Last April he sent a similar letter to Blakeman.
Listening to suggestions from the community, and discussions with the county, will continue, Hill said. “The community has some ideas that they would like done,” he said. “They are entitled to that.” He added: “The board of directors is still negotiating with the county, and hoping for a possible resolution. Talks are still ongoing.”
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