By Elijah McKee
March 30, 2022 (Lemon Grove) — “I’m only helping 120 kids on the weekends — this could help thousands. Everyday,” said Mark Horton, standing in front of the Lemon Grove Recreation Center’s large red gates. “When I lock it up, it’s done.”
Back in 2011, the City cut its recreation department and all recreation programs that did not recover costs, in an attempt to save funds during a budget crisis. Current Councilmembers Jerry Jones and George Gastil were on the board then and both voted against the cuts to no avail, according to the Union-Tribune.
Since then, Horton has provided Lemon Grove its only rec center program outside of school hours, with his Pee Wee Sports program for two to 10 year-old kids. His main job is as a high school special education teacher.
“I love this place, it’s like my second home,” he said, describing the work he put in to start his program at the facility, which included paying himself for each license, month of rent, insurance policy, staff member, piece of equipment and spot of advertising.
Yet his idea was originally only going to be for one year, while the City could not afford the rec center. It is now over a decade later. The rec center is still closed, and Horton is still at it, having seen leadership come and go with promises of restoring what was once a vibrantly used space.
“‘We’ll revisit it in 6 months from now.’ And then that 6 months never happens,” he said with disappointment.
However, a fresh chance to change the situation may have arrived. Community requests to reopen the facility have been consistent across public forums for years. They have grown louder in recent months — and strong collaboration with the City appears to be on the horizon.
“I met with the City Manager today,” said Councilmember Jennifer Mendoza on Tuesday, March 29.
“She was very positive about doing it. With her on board, I’m really hopeful that it’s going to happen.”
The push to try new collaborations with the City started after resident Penny Martinez offered grant writing assistance to the City Council. Councilmember Mendoza responded and helped facilitate a community meeting on Friday, March 25 to strategize funding and programming possibilities. Councilmember Liana LeBaron also participated, as did 20 residents.
Those who attended voiced their hopes to reestablish a positive recreation space for their kids, their concerns about doing it safely, and their ideas for smartly affording it.
The structure of the effort across the City, the school board, and the community was deliberated, and the core areas of grant writing, programming, and fundraising were identified for community participation. Brainstorming has already begun for a kickoff event this June.
Councilmember Mendoza provided further background on the facility with reference to a City staff report from 2018.
“The discussion comes up all the time,” she said as she explained the context of the report to ECM. “Do we have enough money to offer more recreation services.”
It was in 2018 that the City Council asked staff to project how much restoring certain services would cost.
“At the time, we really didn’t have the funds,” said Mendoza, remembering how a sales tax was voted down and then the pandemic hit.
“It never really went away, it’s just we weren’t able to push it forward,” she reasoned.
Mendoza also noted that Liberty Charter High School has occupied the space for years.
“That kind of constrained us a bit,” she admitted.
Yet the charter school is leaving at the end of this school year, a decision made by the Lemon Grove School District. The LGSD built the rec center between two schools and has primary discretion of it during the school day, but the City maintains the building.
With Liberty Charter vacating the space, now is an even better time to partner with the longstanding devoted interest of residents.
At the community meeting, Councilmember Mendoza also offered her vision for the rec center to be open morning to night on the weekends for public use as soon as possible. After that initial step, more programs could be added in.
“After school, there could be kids coming, like 3 until 6:30 maybe? That’d give parents some time to pick them up,” she suggested. She made clear, though, that the City would need to have an employee present for insurance purposes. The group also discussed trained volunteers being useful here as well.
Councilmember LeBaron, who has been investigating what it would take to reopen the rec center since her time on the planning commission, also considered newly moved Lemon Grove residents in this dialogue.
“A lot of them have small children,” she said. “This is where, you know, they bought their first home because it’s affordable.”
“They’re planting roots here, and now they’re also expecting there to be something for their kids to do,” she continued, remembering her time growing up when the rec center was open for her to play after school.
Photo, left: Councilmember Jennifer Mendoza, center, and community members at the outdoor meeting on the rec center.
An open rec center would not only serve Lemon Grove’s youth, though. From adult sports groups to casual outings between family and friends, the facility could once more be a resource in Lemon Grove.
Jeff Galford, who lives down the street from the rec center and who attended the meeting while his son was at Pee Wee Sports, recently started a running group on the outdoor field behind the building. He’s already seen use of the field grow since he started running there, and he noted that the first goal made at the meeting — public indoor use on the weekend — would make it even easier to grow the community around opening and using the rec center.
One idea at the meeting for organizing the overall effort came from resident Chris Williams, who recently helped form a non-profit foundation called the Neighborhood Enrichment Organization (NEO). He hopes to file a Joint Use Agreement with the City so that planning for education, health, social, and skill training related programs can begin.
“We understand no one understands the community and their needs better than its residents. Successful change cannot happen without purposeful citizen involvement and the power of knowledge,” states the foundation’s drafted mission statement, with an emphasis on feeding investments back into the community.
Pursuing this approach could help sustain the rec center, so that people like Horton do not have to do it all alone and without support. His time running Pee Wee Sports has been a success since the 2011 cuts, but he knows that many childhoods have already passed by without opportunity to access the rec center.
“I’m not going to do it forever,” he mused. “I want this to be open for kids.”
As he locked up the building after the meeting, he remembered how active the gym and classrooms used to be. He described ball games, arts and crafts, board games, movies, study spaces, flag football leagues, big dances, and festivals in the parking lot. “This was the heart of Lemon Grove,” he said.
Many who attended the community meeting grew up in Lemon Grove themselves, and knew the potential the rec center has to offer. With fresh communication between the public and the City, increased collaboration between members of Council, and the City’s annual goal-setting coming up, there is now a chance to find something lost in Lemon Grove.
“Those are going to be my goals,” affirmed Councilmember Mendoza. “That’s what I’m going to bring forward.”