A few months ago, Pastor Martin Hutchison was looking at the big, red brick house at 306 Newton St., visible from the Community Gardens he started.
Built in the 1920s, it had been in foreclosure, vacant and boarded up, a problem for the city for years, with its squatters who damaged it and left messes.
He started thinking, “What a great place for a community center” and he envisioned plates piled with hot meals coming out of the kitchen, placed in front of children sitting around a big table, children who, if they were at home, would be unattended. Surrounding them would be adults, engaged in friendly conversation about their days, their homework and friends.
“I said, ‘I’d really like to have that house,’” Hutchison said, recalling he urged city officials to buy it and transform it into one of the community centers Mayor Jake Day and City Council members have been talking about.
“About two years ago when I was on the City Council we received a City Council proposal to institute a curfew,” Day said.
“We were skeptical of it and we pushed back a little bit. We held public forums around the city and got a lot of interesting input. People were begging the question, ‘What does this mean for our city in terms of what we do for our kids and our young people?’
“During the election one of the topics everybody was talking about was a community center, youth development, in our neighborhoods,” Day said.
“I’m excited about it,” City Council President Jack Heath said, calling it “the first step of several we’re going to be doing to address the needs of youth in the community.”
“I’m sure there will be pressure to finish it as soon as possible. A lot of it is cosmetic. We’re going to have to spend some money, but that’s why there’s money in the budget for it. We can get it done,” Heath said.
Research was done to identify neighborhoods with the highest juvenile populations and determine which had community facilities and where the highest levels of arrest and poverty were.
Hutchison, who oversees Camden Community Garden near that expansive red brick house, and teaches children to invest their time in planting and cultivating vegetables, attended the meetings Day mentioned.
“As I developed the garden I saw how the kids were engaging and I saw how it was changing them and interesting them. And I saw what we were able to do with the summer lunch at the garden. I was so sad when we had to stop,” he said.
That lunch drew crowds of children who lived in the neighborhood near the garden, who played together and got involved in planned activities. But when fall turned into winter, there was nowhere to meet.
Day earmarked $500,000 in the FY 2017 budget to buy the house on Newton Street for $35,000, renovate it and transform it into the first of two community centers in key locations in town.
“Right away we wanted to start with places with energy and enthusiasm and the Community Garden clearly did that,” Day said.
Day commissioned the Youth Development Advisory Committee to determine the best kind of community centers. Committee members, headed by Robby Sheehan, visited other facilities then returned to the City Council and recommended purchasing the home Hutchison had an eye on, as well as one on Church Street.
The biggest focus will be on the gaps, where there aren’t already programs in place,” Day said.
Because state and county officials focus on youth programs for those 16 and older, Salisbury will concentrate on early intervention “and wrap our arms around much younger kids,” the mayor said.
“I see a variety of possibilities. The top priority is early intervention, summer and weekend activities, but we want to give other non-profits the opportunity to use it and enjoy it as well,” the mayor said.
With 3,780 square feet and long porches, the two-story structure has plenty of room for multiple uses.
Sheehan said he and members of the advisory committee “looked at all the community center facilities we have in this area, like the Salvation Army, the YMCA and some programs being offered locally and we analyzed the services and the costs.”
Next, they visited four of the 42 community centers in Baltimore City and talked to the directors.
“We got some really great feedback. We took a step back and asked what the needs are in Salisbury,” he said.
The conclusion was that more centers are necessary, and that the Camden area has great need, since no programs are offered there except Hutchison’s.
“Martin found out about the house around the same time we were researching. It was all happening at once. It all came together. It really was a miracle. It’s a huge win for us to get that house for $35,000 and renovate it,” Sheehan said.
“We are super, super excited. Now the planning begins,” he said.
It hasn’t yet been determined how the programs will be funded, Sheehan said. He said advisory committee members learned that in some facilities in Baltimore, the city owns the property and pays the electric bill, but services are self-funded. In other cases, the city hires staff.
Renovations on the first community center could be completed by spring or winter 2018, depending on how in-depth renovations have to be. Day said it’s too soon to know the cost, but that architects, contractors, engineers and locals have already volunteered services.
Heath praised that generous community spirit. “The one thing that separates us from the rest is our people. They’ve done it again and they will do it in the future,” he said.
Hutchison said the Epoch Dream Center, which has a location in Hebron, has interest in occupying the center, although the final decision will be the mayor’s.
“We’ve engaged children first through the process of gardening, then last summer we did the lunches at the garden with an activity every day. That kind of morphed into Saturdays at the garden until it got too cold,” Hutchison said.
“The way I see it, at this new community center, they would continue. They would engage bored and disconnected children. They would build on what we’ve done at the Community Garden.”
Reach Susan Canfora at email@example.com.