The Nelson Heights Community Center is set to get another change in management after an up-and-down existence during which it has consistently faced questions about its purpose, operation and funding.
The Board of Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to retake oversight of the center — located in the Nelson Heights community at the intersection of Puckett and Laseter streets in Covington.
The board approved a resolution which created a new board of directors and now gives financial oversight to the county’s finance department.
The nine-member board will consist of four elected officials — the county chairman, the Covington mayor, a city council representative of the area and the District 4 county commissioner, which is currently J.C. Henderson. The other five members will be citizens who will be chosen by Henderson, the District 4 commissioner, which will give him significant influence over the center’s management; however, the citizens chosen have to be approved by the Board of Commissioners.
The board approved Tuesday the initial five members — Forrest Sawyer Jr., James Russell, Kenny Williams, Alberta Benton and Muriel Minter.
The Nelson Heights center remained vacant for a couple of years after it was built, but since it first officially opened in 2010, it has been overseen by the Newton County Recreation Commission. The commission has contracted with the Washington Street Community Center at a cost of $32,000 per year to provide services.
The Washington Street center, an education nonprofit located on School Street, provided some of the same programs at Nelson Heights that it did at Washington Street, including its core after-school tutoring.
Though the county provided the recreation commission with $32,000 per year to run the center, recreation director Tommy Hailey said the commission spent an additional $18,000–$20,000 above that for the first two years to cover additional costs, including vandalism — Hailey said numerous windows have been knocked out — as well as some initial infrastructure issues, including electrical systems that had to be fixed and cable for phone, TV and Internet that had to be run to the building.
The center is located in Commissioner Henderson’s district, and he was the original proponent for the project, lobbying for its placement on the 2005 SPLOST. Henderson said Tuesday he wanted to see the center run like the Mansfield Community Center, which is run by a volunteer committee; he said he wanted people who live in the community as well as local leaders to be involved with the project; he personally invited county Chairman Keith Ellis and Covington Mayor Ronnie Johnston.
Henderson was never happy with the recreation commission running the center from the beginning, as he initially voted against the recreation commission’s proposal to run the center in 2010.
Henderson is an officer on the nonprofit Nelson Heights Community Services, which had been associated with the center for the purpose of raising funds.
Henderson asked in 2010 to present a proposal from the nonprofit’s board of director to run the center, but he was denied the opportunity because then chairman Kathy Morgan said he should have made the proposal at a previous work session.
The recreation commission’s proposal specifically stipulated that there would be no interference from the nonprofit board or the district commissioner. Henderson said he believed that he should be able to call someone up at the center and be able to speak to them at any time.
However, now Henderson will have a lot of control over how the center is run.
Washington Street center director Bea Jackson said Friday her team will continue to provide programs through the end of the school year. She said the Nelson Heights center has averaged around 17 or 18 students during the three years it’s been open.
“I wish we could have served more, but we were limited by size of facility to really accommodate any more than 20 children. That was our benchmark; we wanted to serve 20 kids a session,” Jackson said thanking the volunteers from the community and Oxford College who helped.
“I applaud (the workers and volunteers); I think they are doing a fantastic job,” Jackson said. “People had ulterior motives to paint the center as something that it wasn’t. I think it does a disservice to those people who really worked hard, in light of a lot of obstruction, to help move the community center forward.”
Jackson said she will present an official written report to the recreation commission and Board of Commissioners detailing the financials and the work done at the center.
She also invited all the children attending the Nelson Heights center to come out to the Washington Street center to continue their enrichment education.
County Attorney Tommy Craig said Tuesday, as he understood it, the concern is the current under-utilization of the facility.
“They are interested in trying to get more children in there learning life skills, computer skills and those kinds of things,” Craig said.
Henderson and the other directors will now have their chance to make that happen.
Commissioners Nancy Schulz and Lanier Sims both asked questions about the role of the associated nonprofit, Nelson Heights Community Services, which lists among its officers Henderson, his wife Sandy and fellow Covington resident Annie Hardy. However, Craig said that the 501(c)(3) would operate independently of the center’s management.
The nonprofit is listed as active on the Georgia Secretary of State’s website, and Henderson said it is still active in the community. Henderson said he recently solicited donations of bicycles from Walmart and other groups and gave them away to area residents.
Craig said the current funding being given to the recreation commission for the center’s operation, $32,000, will be shifted to the county instead.