By D.E. Smoot
Phoenix Staff Writer
Administrators were given the green light this week to explore options to either relocate or rebuild the Martin Luther King Center, a cultural hub of community activities.
The center is showing significant signs of wear and tear after decades of use, a series of small earthquakes a year ago and an extended period of extreme drought conditions.
The $45,000 budgeted this year for repairs turned out to be less than half of what is needed to shore up the foundation. Because of the extent of the repairs needed, city councilors and administrators are hesitant to sink money into the aging structure.
An engineer who surveyed the structure found the building safe for occupancy but cited a need for “significant repairs to increase its longevity and long-term safety.” A Tulsa company that specializes in foundation support work estimated it would cost nearly $102,000 for the work needed to stabilize the structure.
Ward III Councilor Derrick Reed, the King Center’s programs director, said the $100,000 needed to stabilize the existing structure would be better spent on something new. But he cautioned against relocating the facility, an idea bandied about during the Public Works Committee meeting.
“We will get a great backlash if we try to move it from Martin Luther King Street,” Reed said in response to proposals to move the center or combine it with existing facilities. “There is a lot of attachment to that location ... and there needs be a lot of input before you go and throw us in an old abandoned garage someplace.”
The Martin Luther King Center was built in three phases, with the first dating back to the early 1940s. It was used for some time by the United Service Organization in support of the troops during World War II and thereafter. The building later served as a library for Muskogee’s black population.
Reed said an urban renewal project that cleared the way for the construction of Arrowhead Mall wiped out most of the other structures of historical significance to the city’s black community.
Ward IV Councilor Kenny Payne, along with Reed, warned against engaging in a protracted study to see what is needed. Payne said it should take little time to determine whether the city has suitable options.
“We don’t need to take shotgun approach to this,” Payne said, noting the immediate need to address the issue. “We need a rifle.”
Ward I Councilor Lee Ann Langston cautioned against sinking too much money into cosmetic repairs for the building, which is heavily used for King Center programs and by several civic groups. Langston said the $45,000 budgeted for repairs should be redirected toward new construction.
Reed said whatever the decision is, it needs to be made quickly.
“We can’t stall on this process,” Reed said. “We have a major problem right now, and we have too many kids coming through here to put it off into the future.”
Reed said the center’s popular after-school program has a total enrollment of 78 and just more than 60 in average daily attendance. Its summer youth feeding program averaged about 500 children a week, and the summer night hoops program attracted about 300 people every Friday and Saturday night.
Reach D.E. Smoot at (918) 684-2901 or email@example.com.