Avondale residents will meet with city officials Tuesday to start talking about programming for the neighborhood's new Youth and Family Development Center, even though community concerns about the building remain.
At an October Chattanooga City Council meeting, city Chief of Staff Stacy Richardson called the $6 million center "one of the largest, most state-of-the-art buildings in our portfolio," with a full-sized basketball court, gym, kitchen, classrooms and multipurpose rooms, a 2,500-square-foot library/reading technology room and more.
It's a great replacement for the cramped, 60-year-old center in use, residents say.
"We went through three mayors to get a new center," Avondale Neighborhood Association President Ken Smith said." Andy Berke was the first to get the $6 million for a new center. It's needed and welcome."
But Smith said local residents are unhappy about parts of the building and aren't convinced the city is taking their concerns seriously. City officials, meanwhile, believe the residents have some misconceptions about the project.
Residents are disconcerted and offended that the gym's bleachers are concrete rather than retractable wooden structures they expected.
"That's not what the people asked for. I think the community felt slighted," Smith said.
People worry that youngsters playing hard might fall or slide into the bleachers, and that the bare concrete will be uncomfortable to sit on. They also worry that putting the showers and toilets under the bleachers will invite mold and germs.
Richardson told Smith and others at the October council meeting those fears were taken into account, and that tearing down the concrete bleachers would cost $350,000, not counting the price tag for replacement seats.
"If project wasn't safe, if we had found information that validated the spirit of these concerns, we'd be having a very different conversation," she said at the time, also correcting a misperception that the basketball court was less than regulation-sized.
"We take community input very seriously," Richardson said.
In what Smith called an attempt at compromise, Avondale residents asked for padding for the lower sections of the bleachers, seats with backs atop the concrete, and for shifting the basketball court to increase the buffer to 12 feet.
He said the contractor on the project told him shifting the court two feet would mean re-engineering the girders that support the baskets at either end.
"That's an added expense they may or may not be willing to consider," he said.
Neighbors noted the council last week voted to pay for more than $300,000 in extra expenses related to zoning, dirt removal, landscaping and other changes, he said, and worry that there won't be money to address their issues.
City officials say that's not a worry.
Youth and Family Development Administrator Lurone "Coach" Jennings said his staff is listening to the neighbors' concerns.
"We're going to assess and evaluation and make a professional recommendation that will create an environment that is safe and that is attractive and that is user-friendly for the programs that will be provided at that site for the community," Jennings said.
"We hope and pray the community will be patient and let us think through and flesh out and come up with something we know that will be really great," he said.
And City Councilman Anthony Byrd said Richardson promised at that October meeting to get the community together after the holidays for a briefing on the project. That will include discussion about stadium seats and moving the basketball court, he said.
Richardson said in an emailed statement Friday the city plans to address the community concerns as it reviews the feasibility of the suggested changes.
"A committee has been formed, which includes members of the Avondale community, to help find solutions for these issues," she said. "Ultimately, we want families in Avondale to enjoy the center, but we also want to make sure we get this project finished in a timely and fiscally responsible manner."
Byrd also said he's planning to convene monthly community meetings so interested neighbors can keep up as construction moves forward. And if it takes more money, he said, "I am willing to push to make that happen."
"I'm sure the other council members will support me in making sure Avondale gets a top-notch facility," he said.
Contact staff writer Judy Walton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416.