By Rhonda Parker
St. Augustine – Residents of the historic neighborhood of Lincolnville filled the Alcazar Room at City Hall Monday night to express their concerns over the potential closing of the Galimore Center on Riberia Street.
St. Johns County, which failed in their maintenance agreement with the city, now owes a settlement of $400,000 after the community building fell into severe disrepair under their watch. When the agreement with the county expires September 1, many residents who spoke up at the meeting said they had fears that they might see the doors locked October 1 due to the city’s budget woes.
“The Galimore Center is an integral part of our community,” said Peter Romano, a resident of Lincolnville. “I’m proud to see my neighborhood out here.”
Romano told the commission and city officials, “I hope you will put this issue on the foreburner and listen to what residents say is important to the community.”
The Galimore Center’s pool, where local swim teams used to practice, was closed by health officials in 2009, but the center continues to offer some community activities such as aerobics classes, table tennis, homework help for the youth, and an adult computer class. It is also a meeting place for several community groups, including Lincolnville’s Neighborhood Association, Crime Watch and The Council on the Elderly.
“If the city is considering closing the center, the loss would be unconscionable,” said resident Toni Wallace.
Gwen Duncan, co-director of Purcell Conway, a local corporation with ties to the neighborhood, gave a scheduled presentation that included a suggested operational and revitalization plan for the center. Duncan, who grew up in Lincolnville and also owns two homes in the neighborhood, is also president of a local civil rights commemoration group called 40th Accord, Inc., which would also like involvement in restoring the center.
The plan as outlined by Duncan, would utilize the money from the county settlement and calls for three salaried employees at $35,000 each annually, with part-time employees possibly added at a later date. But the Purcell plan would also incorporate community volunteers to run programs and perform upkeep at the center. Duncan said she and another 40th Accord member – Sharon Coley – would volunteer their time if it meant the center could be restored to its former role in the community.
“This used to be a vibrant, working center, a community center. We’re ready to do what it takes to make this a first class program again.”
While Duncan and Coley described visions of the center’s potential, which would include cooperation with the planned civil rights museum, a splash park, and even at some point becoming stop for tram tours of the neighborhood, both agreed the important thing was making sure the center stayed open.
Coley, a local educator for 36 years who also worked at the Galimore Center for 25 years with the after-school program, said the pool wasn’t the biggest thing right now, or even some of the much needed repairs.
“Right now, our passion is to keep the doors open,” she said. “If I had to walk into that as an empty building, it would truly break my heart.”
City Manager John Regan assured the residents that the city had no intention of closing the center.
“We’re just getting started, and I think everyone can see the community is ready to step up to the plate,” Regan said, adding, that what the discussion was about was finding a “stopgap” to keep the center viable until a way could be found to make the necessary improvements.
“The presentation was one of hope. We’ll pull together. What we’re looking for ultimately is a grassroots initiative for a community center run by the community,” Regan said.
Commissioner Errol Jones also stated, “I don’t think we ever said, ‘We’re going to close the facility.’ The pool maybe on the backburner, but keeping to center open for the community is on the front burner. But ultimately, the funding has got to come from us. We need to devise a business plan that will balance the budget, but also look for ways to fund the project.”
A study on the Galimore Center was also presented by Dr. Casey Welch, who is an assistant professor of Sociology and Criminology at Flagler College that looked at community opinion found that the majority of residents – regardless of demographics, felt the city needed to keep the center open and give priority to repairs and the reopening of the pool facility.
A staff report by Jim Piggott outlined a financial plan that would allow the city to operate the center for now with a $40,000 per year budget, and two employees – or 126 employee hours per month. Another employee, possible an independent contractor, could be added at cost of $9,000 to supervise events held at the center such as weddings and family reunions.
Piggott also said that ball teams from Flagler College would like use of the Eddy Vickers fields behind the center, and would agree to maintain the restrooms there.
Following the commission’s unanimous vote to keep the Galimore Center open, residents outside the Alcazar Room discussed whether a victory had been won for the neighborhood, or if the city was truly committed to ongoing neighborhood revitalization.
“We are starting to see some progress. Lincolnville is a historic district, but our neighborhood has cracked sidewalks, buildings that are falling down and projects that don’t get the attention they deserve. The center is a good place to start,” said Solomon Eubanks, who said he lives next door to the Galimore Center.
His brother, Joe Eubanks, raised the question, “What’s going to happen to that $400,000? Shouldn’t that be put back into the center?”
Many residents said they favored a plan that would hire local people to run the center and oversee operations.
“The people who have worked at that center for years are the ones who know best where the money should go and how it can best serve our community,” Solomon Eubanks added.
Other Lincolnville issues figured prominently in the meeting.
With several interested local businesses and community groups in the audience, the commission voted to forgo selection from the three top proposals recommended by city staff for the M&M Market located at 102 bridge Street, and instead, elected to hear other proposals in oral presentations.
Ranked first by city staff was a Senaca, South Carolina Company, Sons & Daughters Architectural Design, while proposal by a local group, the “Lift Up Lincolnville Revitalization Corporation”, which is also involved in other community restoration projects, came in second.
While there would be a delay in the project, Commissioner Jones said, “Time is not as important as the end result, so we aren’t in a rush. It’s best for all parties concerned to start over.”
Mayor Joe Boles Jr. questioned why a South Carolina firm had bid on a project so far away from their home base.
“In this case, What’s more important is getting things right, not necessarily getting it done quickly,” Boles said.
In other business, the commission voted to approve a contract agreement with the Department of Emergency Management to receive $4.7 million for renovation and preservation of the seawall and approved an additional eight beds at the St. Francis House to provide space for the homeless.
They also approved an ordinance that would ban panhandling from portions of San Marco St. and US 1 near the city Library and the Carousel Park.
A city ordinance prohibits sponsors and business owners from selling alcohol at community events held at the parking garage and on Aviles Street was addressed with a unanimous vote that will allow alcohol sales in event areas downtown by approval of the city manager.