Thursday, August 27, 2009

A Change Done Come

“Eight kids broke into this place back in 2004,” Melvin Whitley said with a look of pride on his face. “They didn’t break in to steal anything. They broke in to play basketball. They were here before us.”

We stood in the middle of a packed auditorium. More than 300 people gathered for the open house and ribbon cutting ceremony at the Holton Career & Resource Center. After years of waiting and $16.7 million spent, the former middle school has been transformed into a center that brings new life into the troubled North East Central Durham community.

Durham Parks and Recreation will offer programs at the center. Duke University Health Systems has partnered with Lincoln Community Health Center to operate a wellness center, and Durham Public Schools is offering vocational courses.

It’s the biggest thing to hit North East Central Durham since the formation of the Partnership Against Crime project back in the early 90’s. The building is 104,000 square feet of change making. After years of talk about North East Central Durham, public officials went to the voters in 2005 with a bond referendum. Whitley’s statement punctuated the impact of the moment. As much as we have to celebrate, the question must be raised-what took us so long?

Transforming the historic 1939 building wasn’t the first effort to create a one stop shop for human service delivery. The first stab came in 1995 when the residents of NECD convinced city and county officials to convert the Holloway Street Elementary School into a one-stop shop. The dilapidated building was offered as a gift to the community. A few nonprofits set up camp. The Durham Police set up a substation. Community meetings were held in the building, but it wasn’t enough to draw residents.

In time, the project buckled due to mismanagement, lack of resources and support. The community was left with no more than the memory of their dream. The building stands as a relic of what could have been. More than 10 years later, The Holton Career & Resource Center completes that vision.

One has to wonder why it took so long. Was it a lack of leadership that obstructed the progress of the Holloway Street plan? Was it simply bad timing? Maybe our public officials needed to witness more pain before they got the guts to take a bond referendum to the voters. Or, maybe Durham needed to observe the resurgence of Downtown Durham first.

West Village, Golden Belt, American Tobacco and Downtown development has proven the worth of making something new from something old. Those old tobacco warehouses have brought new life to an area that was waiting for the reading of its last will and testament. If downtown can do it, why not NECD?

Melvin Whitley and the gang over and NECD determined what is good over there is good for those over here. It was time for the city to make a real investment in a community tagged the most needy in the city. If an old tobacco warehouse can be converted into high cotton condos, why not invest in a center that will be the hub for change over on the other side of the tracks?
“They broke in to play basketball,” Whitley said. “They were here before us.” I’m so glad we finally showed up.

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