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Center of controversy 

Carrollton neighbors are asking why plans for a new state-funded $1.7 million community center are being operated by a private Christian church

click to enlarge Trinity Christian Community currently operates at this building in Hollygrove.

Photo by Jeanie Riess

Trinity Christian Community currently operates at this building in Hollygrove.

As the start of construction nears on a new community center funded by a state investment of more than $1 million, members of the Carrollton neighborhood remain apprehensive about the organization chosen to operate it — despite repeated assurances from officials that this is the most effective use of the land and the money.

  Trinity Christian Community, a Hollygrove-based social-services ministry founded in 1967, is seeking bids this fall for construction of the building in the 1700 block of Monroe Street that will serve as its new headquarters, and hopes to begin construction in January, officials have told neighbors in a series of recent meetings. The $1.7 million project is based primarily on state funding for a community center planned for the property starting with the late state Rep. Alex Heaton and dating back years before Hurricane Katrina, officials have explained.

  The history of the funding for the project, how it ended up in the hands of a private, church-based organization, and what accountability Trinity Christian Community will have is a concern for neighbors and members of the Carrollton Riverbend Neighborhood Association.

  State Rep. Walt Leger told members of the association at a special meeting about the issue in September that he is unsure how Trinity Christian Community was chosen five years ago to take over the project after the original concept was derailed by Hurricane Katrina. When pressed by neighbors on the history of the original money trail, he called it "disappointing." But what is clear now, Leger said, is that partnering with nonprofits is the only way new community centers are going to come into existence in the foreseeable future.

  "The City of New Orleans is not in a financial position to build and run new community centers on their own," Leger said. "The way to achieve that is through partnering with other entities."

  The legislation that creates the funding for the community center requires it to offer five kinds of services to the community, according to documents obtained by Barry Brantley, president of the Carrollton-Riverbend Neighborhood Association. It must have adult literacy classes, after-school tutorial and computer programs, job training and placement services, a senior center and nutrition site and a community meeting area.

  Association member Betty DiMarco said the history of the project leaves the Carrollton community skeptical that the center will meet the neighborhood's needs. A City Council meeting extending the zoning for the project in March, for example, led to a sharp exchange between District A Councilwoman Susan Guidry and some opponents of the project.

  "There is a tremendous amount of distrust," DiMarco said. "It is going to be a ... challenge for the community to come together and make anything work, because we've got some tremendous divisions."

  Leger helped create an advisory board for the community center, including five people: David Alvarez, Nicole Bouie, the Rev. Calvin Franklin of Rising Star Missionary Baptist Church, Dr. Mary Green of Dillard University and Andreas Hoffman of Green Light New Orleans.

  Trinity Christian Community Director Kevin Brown promised to take the board's opinions to heart. The organization drew accolades from several City Council members at the council's March meeting and has been lauded for contributing to a reduction in crime in Hollygrove.

  "I'm a product of this very community, and my heart is for this community. ... I want to see this project work," Brown told neighbors at the September meeting. "We want input from the community."

  Association member Jason Coleman, a vocal opponent of Trinity's control of the project, said he questions why an advisory board is needed. Why not add members of the community to the nonprofit's governing board? he asked.

  "I think the [Trinity] board is big enough to have representation from the community, if it's for the community," Coleman said.

  Former association President Jerry Speir said the people on the board are all known for being outspoken and will provide a measure of oversight.

  Members of the Carrollton Riverbend Neighborhood Association learned last week that one of the proposed members of the advisory board, Nicole Bouie, has decided not to serve. Bouie operates a program called Community Commitment that recently moved to 8540 Spruce St., and she opened the coffee shop Stella's in the adjoining space to help defray the center's $4,000 in monthly expenses.

  Bouie said she opted not to serve on the board because she wanted to focus on Community Commitment.

  "I simply wanted to be a part of a governing board, not an advisory board," Bouie said. "We already have a community center operating. My goal is to make sure this center thrives."

  Even after the meetings with officials, some neighbors still hope the Carrollton-Riverbend Neighborhood Association will announce its opposition to the project, said member Drew Ward. Any action like that, however, seems moot with construction so close to starting, he added.

  "I really don't think there's anything to formally oppose," Ward said.

  A better course, DiMarco agreed, is to maintain vigilance that Trinity Christian Community is actually fulfilling the five requirements for the center laid out in the state legislation.

  "I don't think we would have gotten as far as we have if Walt Leger had not stepped in," DiMarco said. "These are the things, under the legislation, that are supposed to be there."

  Brantley, the association's current president, said the key for moving Carrollton forward is to be clear about what the neighborhood needs, which of those needs Trinity fills by its projected opening of December 2015, and to seek solutions to whatever needs still remain outstanding.

  "If this is not serving our community, it's not serving its purpose," Brantley said at the September meeting. "If it fits in this package, let's do that. If not, let's find the next partners for it."

— This story originally appeared on the website of our newsgathering partner Uptown Messenger. For more, visit www.uptownmessenger.com.

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