Town will take over, begin process of planning new Berlin community center
By Josh Davis, Associate Editor
(Feb. 28, 2019) After several months of public discussion and debate, the Berlin Community Improvement Association has reached a tentative agreement with the Town of Berlin to transfer its 130 Flower Street property, which encompasses the multipurpose building and Head Start classrooms, to the town.
Mayor Gee Williams announced the deal Monday.
“That will be transferred at no cost to the town, and the town will become responsible for that property and it then will become the site, not in the distant future … for a new community center,” he said.
BCIA members for months had discussed the agreement, most recently during a Feb. 15 meeting at Stephen Decatur High School. Formerly part of the Flower Street School that operated during segregation, the multipurpose building is meaningful to many in the community, but has become unusable.
Town officials have pledged to preserve that history, while also upgrading the property with a new building.
Williams said the next step would be to develop a memorandum of understanding and then bring the matter before the Town Council for formal approval. He said the town has contacted engineering firm Davis, Bowen and Friedel to survey the property.
In a separate interview last Friday, Williams said the memorandum was likely to be ready during the next several weeks, with a target of signing a contract by early summer.
He said the deal would include deed restrictions to ensure the property is used for a community center and that “there be some sort of significant display showing the history of the property.”
“That’s something we offered,” Williams said. “The history is going to be preserved because, quite frankly, when the people pass on that know its history, how is it going to be preserved? We’re happy to do that – we want to do that too.”
He went on to say negotiations with the BCIA had gone smoothly overall.
“If there’s a point of contention, I haven’t heard of it yet,” Williams said, adding talks lasted several months because many community members “have some fond memories about that building.”
“We all have attachments to our school and I understand that one was very special because, back when schools were segregated, that made it even more precious to their memories and we don’t want to lose that. But, we also have to be practical that, if we let the building fall down there’s nothing to preserve,” he said.
Williams said there was some question as to a partial ownership of the property. Apparently, a masonic lodge during the 1970s asked for and was granted a small area for meeting space.
“There’s just grass there now and two of the three members who were part of that are still very much alive and very much want this transfer to happen,” he said. “The attorneys just want to make sure this is all clean. I would be extremely surprised and disappointed if a defunct lodge takes precedent over a community use that has, I think, very strong support and very strong need.”
To pay for the new center, Williams said the town would attempt to leverage some money set aside to obtain grants.
According to approved meeting minutes from Nov. 9, 2015, the town agreed to sell 1.67 acres on the corner of Route 113 and Route 376 (now a Dollar General store) to Oxford Chase for $269,000. Those funds “must be used for the Community Center and not go towards another project,” the minutes said.
Once the center is operating, a volunteer board would help advise the town on its use, Williams said. As he sees it, the group would have five members, including three from the BCIA.
“It just makes sense,” Williams said. “It’s for the entire community, but we also want the BCIA to meet the dreams that they’ve had – and they’re good things they want to do. It just makes sense to partner with them.”
Leading up to the announcement on Monday, BCIA Chairman D.J. Lockwood oversaw numerous public meetings to allow community members to ask questions and voice their concerns.
In an interview last Friday, he said the organization would be “an important part of the design process” for the new community center and called the agreement “just a win-win for the community and for the BCIA.”
While it may take several years before a new community center is built, Lockwood said the local school system has offered meeting space for BCIA functions during the interim.
The deal also marks an important turning point for the BCIA, when Lockwood and other members can now shift the focus away from salvaging the multipurpose building and back to its original mission: community improvement.
“It is a tremendous amount of weight off,” Lockwood said. “Trying to focus on whether we’re going to be able to maintain a building – that would be the whole focus of a meeting. If we go back to the articles of incorporation, we’re doing none of that. So, as a committee, that’s huge.”
He remembers attending Sunday church service as a child, when part of the routine was weekly announcements of upcoming BCIA events. Lockwood wants to see the group again become a central part of the community.
“Ultimately, we want to start educational programs and recreation programs, and we want to partner with the school and see where we can fill in. Even simple things like etiquette – it’s really hard to expect our schools to teach our children everything. Just simple things like respect are lost.
“Some of that old-school morality and integrity, we want to instill that in our kids in the community,” Lockwood continued. “We want it to be normal that it’s OK to open a door for someone, or say ‘Yes ma’am’ or ‘Thank you’ – just being respectful. I feel like a lot of that is lost … it’s not taught the way it was for us. Programs like that, I think, will help bring that back.”
For more information on the Berlin Community Improvement Association, contact Lockwood at firstname.lastname@example.org.