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Community Rallies Behind Management-Lacking Rec Center

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Copyright 2013 The Topeka Capital-Journal
All Rights Reserved

Topeka Capital-Journal (Kansas)
September 5, 2013 Thursday
549 words
East Topeka community unites around Abbott Center
Aly Van Dyke.

aly.vandyke@cjonline.com

More than 70 people turned out Wednesday evening in the gymnasium of the Juan "Poppy" Abbott Community Center to share one united message to Shawnee County: Keep the center open. For the kids. For the community. For East Topeka.

"This facility is vital to our community," said Foster Chisholm, with the East Topeka North Neighborhood Improvement Association. "Closing it would be devastating."

The hourlong meeting at the Abbott Community Center, 1112 S.E. 10th Ave., was held to gather community input for its future. The center closed Sept. 1 because the county terminated its contract with Community First Inc. after a 15-year partnership to run the facility.

But the center won't remain closed, County Commissioner Kevin Cook said.

"No one said anything about shuttering and leaving the building vacant," he told the crowd after several expressed concern about its closure. "That's not going to happen."

Finding the money to keep it open, however, could be a challenge.

The parks and recreation department was cut by $1.5 million next year. This year, it was scheduled to pay Community First $110,000 to manage the facility.

"I've got to find the money," recreation director Randy Luebbe said after the meeting. "I'll be evaluating every community center, not just this one."

Keeping the Abbott Center open could mean developing partnerships and reducing services, he said. The purpose of Wednesday's meeting was to get an idea of what the community wants, so the county can do its best to meet those needs, he said.

"It is not our intention to close the doors of Abbott Community Center," Luebbe said. "Parks and recreation has that same mission with youth. With the tough times we have, our job is to try to keep these things going. We may have to do it a different way than we've done it in the past."

Most of the 11 community members who spoke at the lectern received applause from the audience, especially after advocating for children's after-school programming and the importance of the center to East Topeka.

"As soon as we start cutting money, it affects kids, working people, poor people and people who can't defend themselves," said area resident Howard Blackman. "At some point you need to stand up and say enough's enough."

The input gathered from the meeting will go into a request for proposals for a new management firm to run the center, but that doesn't mean the county will hire another firm, parks and recreation director John Knight said.

"Everything's on the table," he said.

Community members, including Topeka City Councilwoman Sylvia Ortiz, voiced opposition to sending out an RFP, instead advocating that the center transfer to county management, like the other community centers.

"If you do send out an RFP, please have it with someone who is community-minded and won't charge for services," said Pastor Samuel Abbott, of Shekinah Glory Ministries. "Our kids can't afford that. Our parents can't afford that."

Abbott further questioned how county leaders could make decisions for East Topeka when they don't live, work or visit in that part of town.

"What qualifies all the decision-makers to know what's best for East Topeka?" he asked, eliciting whoops and applause.

Luebbe concluded the meeting by thanking the community members for coming out and for their passion about the center.

September 5, 2013

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