At least one major misunderstanding was cleared up: the B.N. Mabra Center is not part of the discussion. The college’s request was for Duncan-Pinkston Park, the Mattie Simmons Center (gym building) and the building used for decades by the Head Start program.
Arguments for and against the request brought up layers of history, sentiment, politics and pragmatism looking to the future. It turns out the land was given to the city by the American Missionary Association, the same group that originally founded the college for the education of freed slaves after the Civil War. Some of the residents who attended Westside High School feared their history was being given away. Others expressed concerns about losing public use of the park, the parking lot, and eventually of the Mabra Center itself.
More than one speaker spoke about how local residents in the community were made to feel unwelcome on the college’s campus in the past, and did not want to do the college any favors now. Ron Mabra, a son of the late Westside School principal for whom the center is named, spoke in favor of the college getting the property while joking that he had probably been kicked off the college campus more than anyone else at the meeting.
The college has seen dramatic improvements under the leadership of its president, Billy Hawkins, who has overseen a rebirth of athletics, renovation of facilities and growth in enrollment. He has announced the hiring of a soccer coach and a band director, which may have a bearing on the college’s plans for the park. But the college hasn’t come to the public with a specific proposal for how it wants to use the property and how that will impact how its current uses.
Hawkins spoke briefly at the beginning of the meeting, but had to leave for a seniors dinner in Oxford and could not remain to answer questions. He did say the college was looking for an opportunity to partner with the city, and was willing to spend some $700,000 needed for maintenance on the gym. He added that the college really didn’t need the property.
Neither the city nor the city board of education – which was surprised to learn it still owns the gym – anticipates being able to perform the maintenance needed to prevent its loss. City officials estimated it has about a three-year life expectancy if it isn’t done soon.
Some at the meeting expressed distrust of the “current administration” at the college without explanation.
Others expressed appreciation for Hawkins’ achievements and for the college’s legacy in the city through its alumni, cultural benefits to the community and its financial impact through payroll and purchasing.
Council president, Horace Patterson — who was challenged in his bid for re-election last year by a vice president at the college — conducted the hearing to let residents voice their opinions to help the council develop a response to the request.
In the end he asked people to stand to indicate whether they wanted to approve or deny the college’s request, or whether they felt more information was needed. Overwhelmingly the decision was to get more information. Patterson appointed a group representing all three points of view to meet with him and college officials to develop a plan everyone can accept.
We think that’s the right approach to addressing both the needs of the community and the college. The college’s request has now become an opportunity to mend some fences and improve the facilities for everyone’s benefit. We hope it works out that way.