Leader Blues

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

TOP STORY >>Anniversary for center is celebrated

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

Good things are coming to Lonoke, but one that both stimulates and symbolizes the growth is the Lonoke Community Center, which celebrated its fifth birthday Friday morning with coffee and, inappropriately enough, doughnuts.

A green, steel-and-concrete mesa thrust 30 feet above the ever-decreasing agricultural landscape on Hwy.70, the 31,000-square-foot community center is an ever-changing organism, according to Michael Brown, the former Wal-Mart manager the city hired long before the doors opened.

People point to the wild growth of Cabot and its neighboring communities of Ward and Austin, but it was Lonoke residents who overwhelmingly approved a 1 percent sales tax upon themselves to build Lonoke County’s first community center.
Lonoke resident Ron Goss was the driving force behind the center, though he was always quick to point out he had lots of help.

Since that time, Lonoke residents have taxed themselves to build the new, adjacent Lonoke Middle School, and Lonoke should have a new, second I-40 interchange open sometime in 2010. With the promise of that interchange, city leaders believe a new manufacturing plant at a new industrial park is sure to follow. The doors had barely opened when Brown and the community center board came to the city council with the glad news that they needed to build a 3,000-square- foot annex because so many classes were being offered.

That’s pretty impressive when you consider that the community center already had a full-sized gymnasium with six baskets, a walking track, a fitness room packed with weights and exercise machines, a large indoor swimming pool, locker rooms and two meeting or classrooms.

Amidst great excitement, the center opened in the summer of 2002 and membership quickly grew to about 3,000, including people from as far away as England, Carlisle and Cabot.

Since that time, it has leveled off at about 1,600—maybe higher in the winter—and with the help of the tax revenues, that’s enough to sustain the operation, Brown said. He has two other full-time employees and 12 or 13 part-time employees plus some volunteers. During the summers, Central Arkansas Planning and Development pays for three 28-hour-a-week positions.

Youngsters and young adults swim and play basketball, but the middle-aged and seniors, come to use the walking track and the cardio-vascular machines on the upper level.

The center recently got some small golf clubs to start a hook-a-kid-on-golf program, Brown said, and square dancing could be coming to the center.

Among the other activities at the center are Tai Chi Chuan—a slow motion Chinese exercise that is the basis for martial arts forms—water aerobics for arthritic people, Tae kwon do, weight loss incentive programs, gymnastics, dance, twirling, yoga and abs classes.

Brown runs the soccer league.

The men’s basketball league is very competitive, he said, including area residents who play or played in college. One, Marcus Cole, played for the Rim Rockers. “They play a good brand of basketball,” Brown said.

Operating the center hasn’t been without its challenges, according to Brown. Some children can be over-stimulated or aggressive, but he rarely has to suspend anyone’s privileges. The swimming pool roof partially collapsed after a storm and had to be fixed, the basketball floor refinished regularly and the fountain out front has become the source of jokes.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it leaks, and the filters get clogged with grass clippings. It’s had fish, volunteer frogs and colored water in it. Until the new middle school was complete, the high school basketball team practiced in the gym and the school district contributed toward its maintenance.

The Lonoke Community Center, testimony to the residents’ desire to provide for all, but particularly for the town’s children, has served as a model for other small communities. When they were considering or preparing to build their own community center, residents from Cabot, England, Newport Helena, Forrest City, Brinkley and Greenbrier talked to Lonoke.

“They are usually more interested in how to pay for it or run it (than the actual structure and layout), Brown said. Lonoke Community Center memberships are Youth 12 and under: $7.50 a month, $38 for six months or $75 per year; Teenagers or senior citizens: $9 a month, $52 for six months or $100 per year; Senior couple: $11 a month, $64 for six months or $125 per year; Adult: $13.50 a month, $78 for six months or $150 per year.

For a family of one to four persons, it’s $15 a month, $189 for six months or $175 per year; Families of five or more: $17.50 a month, $104 for six months or $200 per year. Walking passes are $30 a year for a senior, $40 a year for a senior couple or $35 per year for an individual.