NORWICH — LaShawn Cunningham, founder of Blooming into Greatness, a nonprofit that gives local children the opportunity to experience the arts, believes there needs to be more mentorship and recreational spaces available for children from the city.
“They really need a facility that they can call their own,” Cunningham said.
At the July 19 city council meeting, many commented on the state of youth activities in the city. Two of the city’s main centers of youth activity, the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center and the Norwich YMCA, are both long gone, leaving a void.
In response, Norwich Mayor Peter Nystrom said Night Flight Basketball and the Police Athletic League, among others, have stepped up to offer activities. Nystrom also noted the recreation department’s work serving 2,300 children last year. However, he said a central center for activities was needed.
“We have the stuff here and the adults willing to volunteer to work with our young people, but I think there is some truth, having a central location, having a community center or a school-based community center of the city,” Nyström said.
Opportunities lost with closures
Cunningham, who was at the town council meeting, said it was important to have the Martin Luther King center as a child because the center helped her move away from bullying at school and nurtured her passion for dancing, as well as other activities like camping and joining the Girl Scouts.
“My mom couldn’t take me camping and doing some of these things, but the Martin Luther King Center just provided this for us kids in the neighborhood,” Cunningham said. “Not only that, but also a sense of belonging. You just had a place to go.
Leonard Miller, chairman of Night Flight Basketball, a summer basketball league, said Norwich was “the leader in youth sports”, between the original incarnation of Night Flight that Miller played in when he was a child in the 1990s, and other activities.
“We had kids from other towns; Franklin, Baltic. Those outlying towns would come to Norwich because they knew the kids would have a good experience,” Miller said. “They had fun, there was good leadership here, but we lost it.”
Summit Fitness a possible solution?
A possibility that Nystrom said the city is considering more activity at city schools or using a remaining school building for a community center. Another possibility is for the city to buy the Summit Fitness and Sports Center, co-owned by husband and wife Henry and Jolene Bowers, and turn it into a community center. Henry Bowers said it would be cheaper than building something new.
Regarding its facilities, Henry Bowers said Summit is 20,000 square feet on seven acres and can be used for basketball, soccer, lacrosse and even soccer. He also suggested adding a swimming pool.
“Norwich Youth Football were strong last year using our facilities. Norwich Youth Soccer and the other football clubs in the area have also used our facilities,” said Henry Bowers.
However, officials are concerned about the transportation needed to reach Summit, which is in the Stanley Israelite Business Park.
“The logistics of that are a problem,” Nystrom said. “How would you get the kids up there?” They don’t go up that hill to get to the industrial park.
Henry Bowers has suggested a bus route that runs from schools to the business park, but such an undertaking might require a subsidy. If Summit was turned into a community center, the city could charge a fee to people outside Norwich who use it, he said.
Cunningham thinks a community center should be within walking distance of downtown or Greeneville. The business park is too far away, she says.
Without the YMCA, Norwich city center looks like a “ghost town”, Cunningham said.
“With the YMCA being there, Norwich city center had so much life.” said Cunningham. “To see him deteriorate is sad, especially if you grew up in Norwich.”
Nystrom said the city has begun the second phase of an environmental assessment of the former YMCA building to check for asbestos and other issues.
The property could still be a location for a community center, but “we still need to figure out the costs to deal with this old building,” he said.
In one look :
On August 7, from 3-9 p.m. at Jenkins Park, Blooming into Greatness, Night Flight Basketball and Rose City United will be hosting a Community Water War, a community field day centered around water games. The free event will also include food, a DJ and a documentary about Norwich pastor Devin Johnson.