Wednesday evening the courts at Linden Park are full of kids shooting hoops in the fading sunlight. Inside the community center, others play ping pong.
But Columbus Parks spokesperson Sophia Fifner explains the building is pretty old. She walks off looking for the center’s director, and finds a plaque just above an old hearth.
“John, is this correct?” she asks one of the staffers. “1951 is when this building was built?”
He tells her it's right and Fifner turns back, saying, “Yes, and there’s been several different additions over the years and over the decades and that’s why we have multiple entrances into this building."
Columbus leaders have decided that, at the ripe old age of 67, the old building needs to make way for the new. They’ve earmarked $20 million for the project—one of the biggest single investments in the coming year’s capital improvement budget.
The revamped facility will be one of 11 so-called centers for opportunity—an initiative spearheaded by Mayor Andrew Ginther aimed at providing health, career and academic support in underserved neighborhoods.
The Recreation and Parks Department called a meeting at the current community center last week to hear what neighbors want in the new complex. But when Parks director Tony Collins kicked off the meeting, he didn't touch on the new range of services under the "centers for opportunity" umbrella.
“Because what I want first is for the community to tell us what they want,” Collins said. “Before I come in with ideas and thoughts about what I’ve heard, I want to hear from them.”
And there are plenty of ideas. Peg Williams, secretary for the South Linden Commission, wants an outdoor amphitheater.
“We’d be the destination neighborhood, specific times of the year, in order to see the wealth of information or history that we have to share,” Williams says.
The rough outline for the project has construction beginning next summer and concluding around fall 2020. When it’s done, the facility will provide job training, food access and violence intervention programming.
But in the meantime, the city may actually end up reducing Linden’s existing services—at least temporarily—or moving them to a different part of the neighborhood. Jim Miller, who heads up the design and construction team, is upfront about how challenging the transition could be.
“Probably the most popular question right now is what’s going to happen with the existing facility and the existing programs while the new facility is under construction,” Miller says. “We don’t have an answer for that yet, but we will—we will by the May 30 meeting.”
And that’s an important question to answer, because the center already provides important services like Head Start for pre-K children and a fresh produce program. Avoiding some level interruption in services over the course of a year or more could be difficult, and city officials are looking for local organizations to help pick up the slack.
Williams is optimistic about the response they’ll get.
“People, when they see that progress is being made, they just roll up their sleeves, and keep whatever programs, existing programs that we have, because it’s temporary," Williams says.
Not everyone at the meeting is quite so confident, even if they all hope the city’s marquee project pays off.