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Neighbors review Arlington Hills Community Center’s first month
The new Arlington Hills Community Center, which took over eight years of planning, has now been open for a solid month.
And so, the Payne-Phalen District Council held a board of directors meeting to get an update on the facility’s progress.
One thing is quite clear: the place is crawling with kids, tweens and teens.
And that’s just what planners expected, said Kathy Korum, deputy director of St. Paul Parks and Recreation.
“We expected that this gym and this teen space would be busting with teens,” she told the board, noting that many of the kids are from the immediate vicinity and can easily walk over to the new facility.
As the board meeting progressed in the large community room, groups of teens could be seen walking past the room’s large windows, hanging out at the picnic tables, socializing, goofing around, and even interacting with community center staff.
St. Paul Parks and Recreation and St. Paul Public Libararies staff were at the meeting to give the board a briefing of the first month -- they noted the busy gym, the bustling teen center, the tween program they started for kids ages 8 to 12, and the library’s circulation statistics, which show that circulation doubled since the library opened in the new location.
In short, the place is off to a rousing and promising start, they asserted.
And while that start is remarkable, it also poses some challenges -- Korum said that the large groups of kids sometimes hanging inside and out of the center can be intimidating to people, namely “older white folks” who live nearby.
Payne-Phalen board member Danette Allrich remarked that she saw a fight between teenagers break out as she came up to the center on her way to the meeting. She complained that such sights are common occurrences outside the new facility.
In that context, Korum told the board that it’s better the kids are at the community center regardless -- “we’d rather have (kids) here where we can work with them, rather than out gallivanting through the neighborhood.”
Korum noted that a possible tension between different demographics hoping to use the community facility is part of the reality of a rec center, and said staff have already taken proactive measures, such as designating adult-only gym time. Alex Glass, recreation director for St. Paul Parks and Recreation, noted that staff are working on getting senior programming up and running as well.
“We can’t run the space without expecting that there’s going to be kids in the gym and kids in the library and adults in the gym and adults in the library,” Korum said.
“There are some that would like to fix all the kids, and a couple of them need some work ... but as an old white person ... I need to think about how I can change a little bit ... and how I can fit into this neighborhood,” she added, noting that it’s much different from when she was growing up on the East Side.
Korum said the community center will hold a meeting with a group of 150 teens to talk about how their behavior is perceived by the community.
Korum also highlighted a strong turnout for the community center’s free meals for kids -- the program sees about 90 kids per day.
Korum noted that the police have had to be called in a few times already - in once case there was a group of girls with a weapon in the building, but said there have been no major incidents.
Korum said that relations between the St. Paul Police Department and the community center have been a bit shaky -- “We got off to a rough start,” she said, noting that the sometimes heavy police presence has seemed intimidating to some of the kids.
And while a police presence is welcome, “we’d prefer it didn’t mean 10 squad cars parked outside like a surveillance mission,” she said.
Jill McRae from the St. Paul Police Department’s Eastern District suggested the community center staff and the police department could have started with a dialogue earlier on, rather than beginning discussions as the facility was opening.
As for the police presence, she said, “We want everybody that comes up here ... to feel safe.”
She said part of why officers are a steady presence at the community center is because officers are “up here building relationships.”
In addition, McRae noted that police officers have begun attending weekly meetings with community center staff, which has improved the line of communication.
Board member Darlene Adams questioned what she called a heavy-handed approach by the police. “I’m tired of our kids being stopped from being children.
“They need to be used to walking down the street without getting harassed,” she said.
Adams also brought up the fact that nearly the entire board, as well as members of the public in attendance, were white, which doesn’t represent the demographics of the community.
“Why is it that African American people aren’t in here?” she wondered aloud.
Board member David Syers pointed out that “it’s unrealistic for all of us to expect this community center to solve all the problems of this neighborhood.”
Syres lauded the community center staff’s ability to change on the fly.
But he also expressed disappointment, saying that the staff and overall programming of the community center didn’t seem quite prepared. “We told you during the planning process ... you need to be dialed in on day one.”
Addressing the fact that progress at the community center would be ongoing, the district council made a point of noting that future meetings will be held at the community center, and passed a motion to keep regular tabs on the progress of the well-needed, already heavily used facility.
Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @ESRPatrickLark.