Marksville City Councilman Clyde "Danny" Benson continues his criticism of the way in which the Mary Bethune Community Center project was handled, particularly the lack of planning on how the center would be used once construction was finished.
Marksville Mayor John Lemoine contends the Mary Bethune Community Center is a place for the city's youth to go and envisions a center with recreational and educational programs, as well as a place to hold community events such as class reunions. He said the city had no way of predicting the financial downturn that keeps it from funding programs at this time.
Community effort urged on Bethune Center
Eyes rolled and more than a few snickers were stifled during a loud and sometimes personal exchange between Marksville Mayor John Lemoine and District 5 Alderman Clyde “Danny” Benson over the funding and future of the Mary Bethune Community Center.
The two men had squared off over the issue last month, but the intensity of the discussion escalated during the March 8 City Council meeting.
Lemoine said he was “raised in that neighborhood and I didn’t see Mr. Benson there.” Lemoine said his grandmother lived near the Bethune School.
Later in the discussion, Benson revisited the mayor’s comments, saying he lived in the projects and while Lemoine would be dropped off in the afternoon to be babysat, “I remained in that community at night after the mayor went home.”
Benson said he did not appreciate Lemoine “questioning my ‘black-ness’” because the councilman disagreed with holding a grand opening for the recently remodeled gym.
One of Benson’s main objections was the way in which the Bethune Center advisory committee operates. He called it “an illegal committee” because it does not post its meeting date and agenda and does not publish its minutes.
Lemoine became agitated with that line of debate, yelling to Benson that it was not an illegal committee and that the people on the committee were trying to do something good for the city.
At one point during the back-and-forth, Councilwoman Mary Sampson interrupted, saying, “What has this got to do with the gym?” Spectators in the unusually crowded meeting room seemed to agree with her point.
Rev. Charles Guillory spoke on the subject of the community center, noting that there should have been more attention paid to how the center would be utilized and what programs could be provided in it. However, he said the most important thing to be done for the future of the center “is for this mayor and council to work together.”
That comment also received support from the audience.
Sally Bennett Dubroc, who said she spent over 25 years involved in youth programs in this parish and currently lives in Alexandria, said the YMCA is interested in operating in the old gym, but will not come in with a lot of money to pay for programs.
She said the YMCA would require the city to have a reserve of at least three times the center’s operating costs before it would open a program in the gym. Once it accepted Bethune as a YMCA site, it would operate the various after-school and recreation programs.
There is also a Boys & Girls Club non-profit available in the parish, but it is not active.
She said the Red Cross has also expressed an interest in using the Bethune Center as a relief shelter. However, once again that would not provide any money to help operate other programs in the center.
Dubroc said being a designated shelter would show others outside of the city that Marksville is willing to help in times of need and it would allow others to see the work done to remodel the old gym.
IMPORTANT AND DIFFICULT
Planning programs is the most important and difficult part of operating a successful youth center, Dubroc said. She said a lot of “heart and work was built into this project.” She praised state Rep. Robert Johnson for obtaining state capital outlay funding and others for working hard to turn the dream of restoring the gym for the community.
Dubroc said most can agree that the efforts “were mismanaged, but do we do something now or just say who did something wrong?”
In what was probably the most well-received comment of the night, Dubroc said, “Time, talent and treasure is what we need now. No more criticism and no more ‘could’a, would’a, should’a.’”
In response to a comment that the mayor and council should get along better, Benson remarked, “Well, he didn’t get along with the last council either. That should tell you something.”
Lemoine acknowledged the city’s financial problems are affecting its ability to use the Bethune Center as it hopes to. However, he said the center “is something everyone should be proud of. The plan was not to build it and just let it sit there. We will go forward.”
Marksville construction contractor Brent Scallan, who worked on the remodeling project and whose grandfather sold the land on which it is built, said when he entered the gym prior to the renovation “it was filled with Boston fern growing in there.”
He joked that the city might’ve been able to pay for the entire project if it had been able to sell the decorative plants to homeowners.
Scallan said the center “has potential, but it has to be a community effort or else it will go back to growing Boston ferns.”
Sampson said the advisory committee will talk to ministers across the city to get names of citizens willing to serve on an expanded committee to address the issues of funding, planning and programming.
Following the discussion on that issue, the council unanimously approved purchasing fire/property insurance for the Bethune Center at a cost of $4,270.93 a year. The policy covers the replacement cost of the building, up to $1.7 million, and carries a $5,000 deductible per claim.
After the meeting, Lemoine said every council member has a right to their opinion, “but in the case of Mr. Benson, I don’t share his opinion.”
Lemoine said the intent of the Bethune Center is to give the city’s youth “a place to go.” He said he hopes to have after-school programs, computers for students with no computer at home, recreational programs and possibly meal programs for children. The center would also be ideal for class reunions and similar events, he said.