In response to a request for proposal sent out by Nassau County on Jan. 2, Five Towns Community Center, workers, volunteers and community members joined forces last Friday in support of the 115-year-old community resource and to pressure the county to renew the center’s lease, which expires next year.
“We’re not going anywhere,” Executive Director K. Brent Hill told the hundreds of protesters who gathered outside the center. “We are going to fight until the very end.”
The center’s 50-year lease with the county is set to expire in July 2024. Many employees were led to believe that County Executive Bruce Blakeman would re-sign the agreement, but the county has not yet offered the center a renewal. According to the RFP, the county is seeking people or entities to lease the Lawrence Avenue property to provide youth-oriented activities and services.
“It’s a shame that they want to take the last thing away from the black and brown communities,” said Barbara Thompson, who works with the Rev. Gregory Stanislau at St. John Baptist Church in Inwood. “They serve everyone regardless of race and color. This should not be done, and the county is trying to get rid of this building, and the people that want to take this building do not serve the community.”
Joe Billingsley, who has lived in Inwood since the 1970s, said the community center played a major role in many young lives. “It helped get the youths off the street,” he said. “They had summer job programs, school help, child care and different activities. It is a vital (part) of the community.” Billingsley said he brought his children to the center when they were young.
Dwayne Daniel voiced his appreciation for the center for keeping him off the streets and out of trouble. “This is all we have left,” he said. “If they take this away, we have nothing.”
Jackson Mondesir has volunteered at the center for three years, tutoring children in the after-school program. “After school, I would come here to work and watch over the kids,” he said, “to see how people work with each other and communicate. It’s a fun-loving environment.”
When he learned that the county was seeking alternate proposals, Mondesir said, he was concerned about the people he has built relationships with. “I was shocked and worried,” he said. “I felt panic, because I don’t want them to take this away, because it is very beneficial for me and everyone here in the community.”
County officials said the expiration of the current lease would trigger the need for another tenant. “In order to meet the needs of the community, an RFP is being issued now so that other entities will have the opportunity to respond,” Chris Boyle, a spokesman for Blakeman, said.
Boyle added that as a county tenant, the center has “failed to live up to their obligations, which is problematic.” Exactly what Boyle meant remained unclear this week.
“County Executive Blakeman is committed to improving the property and providing quality programs for the community without burdening taxpayers,” Boyle said.
Hill told the Herald that he had been contacted by several community members who said they were disappointed by the county’s response, and have described it as “despicable,” “disgusting” and “insulting.”
“The community came out to show their support because, in fact, we provide crucial services,” Hill said. “The county has not expressed to us any obligations not being met. We are certainly willing to meet with the county executive or his representatives to address any concerns they may have.”
Some neighbors expressed their desire to fight for the center, while others expressed doubt that they would lose one of their most valuable community resources. Stanislau, of St. John Baptist, encouraged the crowd to block out any doubts, and not to go down without a fight.
“It is up to us to continue to put the pressure on those who have the power and say ‘enough is enough’,” Stanislau said. “Everyone counts, regardless of status and economics. Everyone counts. That is what’s important.”
The protest, organized by Sasha Young, the founder and director of Gammy’s Pantry, which operates at the community center, said she was thankful for the show of support. The pantry is a free resource for people who are in need.
“You can see that we can come together on a day or two notice,” Young told the crowd outside the center. “We did not want to stop traffic and cause inconvenience. But losing the center is a big inconvenience to all of us.” She added: “We’re in this together. It doesn’t just affect me, it affects all of us.”
Meeting was held on Jan. 25, Community Center board members and neighbors spoke passionately about what the center means to them. The board aims to speak with the county and find a resolution to the lease issue.
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