Town center celebrates opening

Published: Monday, January 16, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 15, 2006 at 11:38 p.m.
Two years of hard work have yielded: Functioning ceiling fans. Tiled floors. A sturdy railing on the porch.
To the ones who dreamed this place up, the converted heart-pine dairy shed might as well be trimmed with gold.
"This place looks like a dream come true," said Rosie Washington, treasurer of Neighbors United for a Better Alachua, the community group that made renovating the community center the core of its work for the past two years.
"Yeah," said Louis Washington, her brother-in-law and fellow NUBA member. "This old building means more to me than any new building because it has the empowerment of the community built into it."
Two years after NUBA members and other residents started fund-raising, brush-clearing and lobbying, the community center is celebrating its grand opening. When it's fully functional, the center will be used as a gathering place for residents, safe haven for latchkey kids and source of entertainment for retirees.
The current members of NUBA met a few years ago, while working on another community-service project. They agreed they wanted more than what the city-sponsored group could provide, and started looking for a project to call their own.
Around the same time, a former city planner learned of an old shed the University of Florida hoped to donate from its Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences research dairy in Hague. The volunteers agreed it would make a perfect community center, and said building a community center would be the perfect way to affect positive change in the city.
A city-owned lot on NW 140th Street, part of the traditional city center, emerged as the best site candidate. It's right up the street from the home of Connie Canney and Carol Thomas, the sisters who have unofficially steered the group and served as its matriarchs.
NUBA members started meeting with the city and with each other, plotting ways to raise money to retool the community center once it was moved from Hague to its new home on NW 140th Street.
They dreamed of a place where kids could go after school and receive homework help. A few NUBA members are retired teachers, and have volunteered to be tutors or mentors.
They dreamed of a place where retirees - NUBA calls them "elders" - could sit in rocking chairs on a wraparound porch that didn't exist yet, or planting vegetables in a community garden.
And they dreamed of a center that really brought the community together through art, music and new friendships.
The city paid to move the shed to a city-owned lot in December 2003. Then, the real work began.
Group members organized Saturday volunteer work days. City commissioners came prepared to wield hammers and to clear brush with chainsaws.
Still, fund-raising for needed repairs was slow, and for months, the center sat empty and quiet.
"People looked at it like, 'That's our community center? That's it?' " said NUBA member Michael Canney, Connie Canney's son. "They called it 'that old shed.' "
"It was like having eggs thrown at us," Louis Washington said. "Well. Nobody really threw eggs. But, you know."
"Even the city commissioners - I think they just wished we would go away," Michael Canney said. "They said, 'Do you really want that old shed? We can build a brand-new building that will be bigger and better if you just wait.' "
Michael Canney shook his head. "We said, 'We'll take this, now. It doesn't look like much. But it's a start.' "
Then, NUBA members said, their luck changed.
They were discussing the project and their problems at a city meeting, and Greg Waitcus of Santa Fe Ford happened to be in the audience. He offered to help.
Not long after that meeting, he donated a new car to the cause. NUBA raised $15,545 through raffle tickets, Connie Canney said.
"That was the turning point," Michael Canney said. "People started making other donations, and thinking, 'Well, if Greg can give a car, we can do something.' "
The group has ultimately raised more than $20,000 for the center, not including in-kind contributions, Connie Canney said. The city has put more than $235,000 toward the center, and City Manager Clovis Watson Jr. said city officials are as excited about the opening as NUBA is.
"This has been a very long time coming," Watson said. "The city had moved a building to that property years ago, but for whatever reason, it didn't work out. Sometimes it takes a community effort to move a project forward, and that's what we'll be celebrating on Monday."
The work isn't completely finished. The center will need one more coat of paint inside, and the parking lot is still unpaved.
NUBA and city officials also haven't developed programs for the center, or handled staffing issues.
It's not ready yet. But it's a start. Amy Reinink can be reached at 352-374-5088 or

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