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The once bright-red jungle gym is now a faded light pink, splotched by rust. Under the play structures, eroded rifts in the mulch expose a shard of glass here, an empty ketchup packet there.
The Eastdale community has been asking for major upgrades to the game room, the gym and playground at their 50-year-old city recreation center for more than a decade. Each year, the requests are denied, said Eastdale manager Dank Hawkins.
But when Mayor Andy Berke took office, he said the city's 18 recreation centers would be part of his focus on education. He renamed them Youth and Family Development Centers and funneled nearly $200,000 total for each center to add computers and the Lexia reading program and mentorship programs for teens.
Yet Eastdale residents say more -- much more -- is needed. They wonder whether reading should be the mayor's first priority when there is no quiet place for the kids to learn, the parking lot is dark at night, cars speed across the road where children play, the gym floor is a patchwork of broken tiles and there are no bleachers to encourage parents to come watch their kids play ball.
The reward for studying is supposed to be recreation, but if the neighborhood kids don't have that option, what message does it send them? said Greg Walton, president of the Foxwood Heights Neighborhood Association.
"If you're going to turn your rec centers into schools, how about you take care of fixing that beforehand?" he asked.
That's the plan, the mayor's office says.
Brent Goldberg, Berke's deputy chief operating officer, said the administration's first priority upon taking office last year was to get the Lexia reading program into the centers. One piece focuses on helping kids up to fifth grade improve their reading scores, while another focuses on sixth-graders through adults. The city says that just more than 2,000 children at 17 centers use the reading program an average of 35 minutes a week.
"That's what we decided to do," Goldberg said. "We think that is pretty important -- more important than a light in a parking lot."
But now the mayor's office will start to focus on major capital repairs.
The next three months will see a top-to-bottom evaluation of each center to determine which buildings need the most immediate attention, based on the severity of fixes, attendance and the center's role in the community. The city will budget money starting in fiscal 2015-2016 and prioritize the list over three to five years.
The capital budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1 includes $150,000 for a parking lot at the John A. Patten center in Lookout Valley and a $35,000 pavilion at the Washington Hills center near Highway 58.
The rec center buildings span a century, from the oldest, the John A. Patten center built in 1910, to the Hixson Center built in 2010. Each offers different activities that range from pools to large baseball fields, fitness centers, gyms and walking tracks.
And these centers aren't just for the kids, community members say. Senior citizens hold classes, neighborhood association leaders call their meetings, and communities rally and come together using these places as the central location.
Last week, facility managers were given a survey to fill out where they could list needed improvements costing under $4,000, between $4,000 and $25,000, and more than $25,000.
Several council members believe the greatest needs are in their districts.
Councilman Yusuf Hakeem, who brought a list of 14 repairs requested by the Eastdale community to the mayor's office, questions why what he calls a long-neglected community has to wait at least another year to be considered for upgrades.
"This center has been neglected for a number of years and that means you're neglecting the people, the children in particular," Hakeem said. "You're going to tell me those moneys are available for [the Patten and Washington Hills centers] but these needs that we've had for many years is not available? I have a problem with that."
The mayor's office said many less-costly items already have been fixed, a leaky skyline in the gym roof, tinting windows for $2,500 where the kids were distracted and replacing a trophy case for $2,000 so trophies children earned over the years weren't stacked on a soda machine or crammed into corners, broken and collecting dust.
Asked about $1.2 million spent at the Hixson center this year to upgrade the parking lot, remove asbestos and renovate the building, the mayor's office said that was a project planned by the previous administration.
Through the Wilcox Tunnel in East Chattanooga, Councilman Moses Freeman said the Avondale center, built in 1949, is so tiny and decrepit that it should be replaced as the first priority for the mayor's office.
"It's too small; there's not enough room to do anything," Freeman said.
Several council members said they like the idea of a systematic study on what changes are needed.
The last such evaluation on this scale was in 1998, remembers Councilman Jerry Mitchell, who was picked to head the committee. That study recommended closing several centers and merging them with others.
But no one wanted their community center closed and leaders rallied to keep each one open, Mitchell said, and in the end the city added at least one center in South Chattanooga.
Recently, the Eastdale community has made strides to step in where the city hasn't. Walton said that in May, neighborhood association leaders got the Chattanooga Symphony to play on the rec center lawn to gain public support from officials and the community.
Folks set up tents and brought out stadium seating and more than 200 residents, black and white, attended along with several city and state officials, Walton said.
He just hopes those officials glanced around and realized the condition of their community space.
Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6659.
SPANNING A CENTURY
A few of the buildings housing Chattanooga's Youth and Family Development Centers have been built since 2000, but most are much older.
Avondale Center: 1949
Brainerd Center: 1930
Carver Center: 1962
East Chattanooga Center: 1954
East Lake Center: 1967
Eastdale Center: 1964
Frances B. Wyatt Center: 1970
Glenwood Center: 1973
Hixson Community Center: 2010
John A. Patten Center: 1910
North Chattanooga Center: 1978
North River Civic Center: 2005
Shepherd Center: 1953
South Chattanooga Complex: 2000
Tyner Center: N/A