Balis Center gets reprieve, but future use depends on programming

By Lara Patangan
Resident Community News

The Balis Community Center got a new lease on life when it was spared from impending closure by City Council last month, and now is looking to neighborhood residents to determine how to revive programming at the underutilized facility.
Balis Community Center, adjacent to the San Marco Library, is hosting a town hall meeting on Oct. 10, 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., to determine how best to implement a variety of programs that would allow it to function as it was originally conceived – with multiple activities offered to neighborhood residents simultaneously.
While the Center was slated to close in an effort to comply with Mayor Alvin Brown’s proposed 14 percent budget cut, supporters of the Center successfully petitioned the City Council Finance Committee to keep the facility open. Now, residents are being asked for their input on programming to ensure it better serves the community.

Andrew Dickson, the Parks Chair for San Marco Preservation Society, sees this as an opportunity to reevaluate the Center’s use. “Sometimes it takes something like this to get things energized and going in a better direction.”

According to Pam Roman, Marketing and Community Relations Manager for JaxParks, the only structured programs currently offered at the Center, which is run by the Parks Department, are after school activities Monday through Fridays from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. and a summer camp.
When the new budget takes effect on Oct. 1, the after school programming will no longer be structured, but kids will still be able to access the computer lab and art room for open recreation. In addition, the Center’s operating hours will change from to 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.

In the 2012- 2013 school year, 45 kids were in enrolled in the after school program.  The Center is also available for community group meetings and weekend rentals. Since Oct.1, 2012 the facility was rented 70 times. There are no numbers available on the frequency of community meetings.

“In the last two to three years the Center’s attendance has dropped in a lot of areas,” explained Roman. “It was cut from being staffed from full days to half days because no one was using it. Now we can look at other options to build it back up program-wise. Ideally, we would like it to be programmed full-time.”

The idea is to develop a partnership with the City in which an external organization would run the programming for the Center. Roman said that other centers following City processes have partnered with outside groups allowing for the implementation of broader programs. “We are considering that as a viable option, but may also consider other opportunities as we move through the process,” said Roman.

If the Center adopted a similar arrangement, after school activities would still be run by the Parks Department, and another entity would run extracurricular programs. “There is a suggestion from the Parks Department to have [Balis Community Center] used for a new model for programming,” Dickson explained. “Balis is underused because it’s understaffed and under-programmed by the City. It’s a downward spiral.”

District 5 Councilwoman Lori Boyer thinks that with the community’s effort there is potential to add more value to the Center. “Balis might be a good pilot because San Marco is such an active community. This is a good time to test the waters and see what the interests are,” Boyer said. “What does the community want to see and how do we make it happen?”

The other issue besides finding an organization willing to schedule and manage programming is how to defray some of the costs of rental space. Currently, the Parks Department charges $125 to rent the facility for three hours. This fee includes the cost of one JaxParks staff member and clean-up.
Boyer thinks that if a different fee arrangement with the Parks Department can be negotiated for the purposes of programming, and programmers charge a nominal fee for their classes, then that issue can be resolved. “If all the groups spend a modest amount for use of the space, that would defray the costs,” Boyer explained. “There are ways to do it, but it’s not ironed out.”

The October 10 town hall meeting seeks to hear from neighborhood residents about the programming they would like to see and as a community find a way to implement it.

“The idea is to get together a variety of stakeholders and talent to offer more innovative programming,” Dickson said. “I am curious to see who will come out of the wood work.”

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