In 1994, whenever District 1 resident Arelis Pérez, a single mother in North College Park, wanted to take her kids somewhere to do an activity, she’d make the 20 minute drive down Route 1 to the nearest community center in Lakeland or a location in Laurel or Greenbelt.
Pérez had hoped that soon, North College Park would get a community center that would have more accessible senior and children’s programs. Twenty-six years later, her wish still hasn’t come true.
For the last 10 years, some North College Park residents have been asking for a community center, to no avail. But after all that time, they’re only just starting to see slow signs of compromise.
In February 2019, the city hired a third party called Greenplay to assess the community’s recreational needs and desires. But the results of the report — which concluded that a large recreation center wasn’t necessary for North College Park and instead recommended multiple small multipurpose rooms — sparked lasting frustration and disappointment from residents.
The multipurpose rooms, which would be located on strip malls, were suggested because facilities in College Park aren’t being used to their full capacity.
Yet, for North College Park residents like Pérez, an actual community center feels like a necessity that would be beneficial to everyone.
“It’s definitely something … lacking in North College Park,” Pérez said. “If I was to win the lottery, I’ll build the damn thing myself.”
District 4 council member Denise Mitchell agreed. North College Park hasn’t been given much attention in terms of amenities for children and seniors, she said, and going down Route 1 to the Lakeland Center can often take longer depending on stoplights and traffic. Something close by would make getting to these spaces less of a hassle.
Mitchell was frustrated by the report’s conclusion, which stated that a community center was a “desire” rather than a “need” for North College Park residents. While that conclusion was removed from the report in an October council meeting, Mitchell said it would still make it harder for the city council to justify building the center.
Additionally, the city is dependent on Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, Prince George’s County recreational amenity supplier, to provide almost all parks and recreation services. College Park’s Recreation Board coordinates events and recreational activities in the city and it sometimes works with MNCPPC to amalgamate recreational facilities.
But MNCPPC collects taxes to supply the facilities because the city isn’t able to, said District 3 council member John Rigg. One way to make the city more independent in supplying recreation amenities, he said, would be for the city to create its own parks and recreation department that would assume all the relevant services the county’s department currently provides.
“If a community center were part of a broader process of in-sourcing parks and recreation, then it could be a nice addition to our community, if it were necessary,” Rigg wrote in an email.
Mayor Patrick Wojahn said the council has always held a consistent position of investing and moving forward with a community center.
Tom Dernoga, College Park’s County Council representative, has also been on board and recently launched a feasibility study for the community center to see if it would be a worthy investment. Wojahn said he appreciates county efforts and that it was the first step moving forward.
“I think we should be thoughtful and figure out what people do want from the community center in North College Park,” Wojahn said.
But some North College Park residents, such as North College Park Civic Association President Mary Cook, say surveys need to stop and action has to start. After all, Cook said, North College Park has the highest number of single family homes, so it makes sense to have something within the vicinity for programs.
In the November issue of Here & Now, a community newspaper in the city, Cook wrote an opinion piece about the community center, calling for more concrete action. The city and residents are looking at a compromise: Greenplay’s recommendation of renting retail space as a test drive for the success of a real community center.
“We don’t have to have a stone and mortar building,” Cook said. “Once we rent the space, we help out a landlord as a tenant, we experiment and if it doesn’t work, everybody just walks away. What’s the big deal?” Cook said.
District 1 resident Mel Blain found the idea of renting storefronts appealing. Blain is the owner of Posh Cycling and Fitness, a spinning facility that also offers other fitness classes such as yoga and dance. Blain is in favor of a community center, but she is concerned it would supply fitness classes at a cheaper rate, hurting her business.
The retail rentals could bring in potential partnerships for her. She could rent out her large space during down time for different programs. But she worried about other vacant retail spaces, saying they seemed small and had inaccessible parking.
“They’re not as large as what I think of when I think of a community center,” Blain said.
While District 1 resident Christina Toy thought the vacant storefront option was a nice idea, she felt it wouldn’t work out. Toy attempted to start her own playdate program for kids in the area but stopped after six months. She used the Youth and Family Services building, she said, but the space was too small for 10 families with 25 kids to enjoy themselves. Additionally, she couldn’t store toys there and found herself hauling toys in her small Honda Civic every Tuesday — with a newborn.
“You get burnt out,” Toy said.
District 1 council member Kate Kennedy also brought up the issue of staffing.
With a community center, there would have to be workers. And although some have brought up the idea of volunteer leaders and people donating items to help keep it running, Kennedy said that in her experience with nonprofits, relying on volunteers and donations won’t be sustainable.
“I don’t think the city is interested in investing in a program that’s gonna last five years and then dwindle. We want to be building successful programs and building on them,” Kennedy said. “We want to make sure whatever we set up succeeds.”
Multiple council members said they believed just about everyone in the council supported the community center, but there are still things they need to discuss. They particularly want to see the results that come out of the county’s report, Wojahn said.
In the meantime, the city will have two or three work sessions in the near future to consider the center more in-depth. Alternate options, such as the storefront rentals, and the budget after COVID-19 will be topics of debate.
While they juggle options and solutions, however, residents are getting restless and want the city to do something soon.
“The city needs to grow,” Toy said. “We need to be proactive and not reactive.”
CORRECTION: Due to a reporting error, a previous version of this article misquoted the report as describing the community center as a “want.” The conclusion, which was removed from the report in October, called it a “desire.” This story has been updated.