PUNTA GORDA — Charlotte County NAACP President Connie Payne asked the Punta Gorda City Council for communication, connection, engagement and partnership with them for future operations of the Cooper Street Rec Center.
At the Wednesday City Council meeting, Payne said the Black community, the NAACP and members of the New Cooper Street Rec Center board of directors learned through the media that the council may want to replace the operations of the center.
“No information on the changes discussed by the Punta Gorda City Council was formally shared by the city to the New Cooper Street Board,” she said.
The City Council had come to a consensus to have City Manager Greg Murray call the YMCA of Charlotte County or the Charlotte County Boys & Girls Club and ask if its respective board is interested in operating the Cooper Street Rec Center, 650 Mary Street, Punta Gorda.
“Those faces on the side of that (rec center) building are the founders,” she said. “It was founded 50 years ago by the Black members of the community. It was founded because the (Black) residents were not permitted to attend the white rec center.”
She said they want to partner with the City Council.
“We do feel we should have a seat at the table,” she said, adding Cooper Street residents and the rec center users have the “full support of NAACP behind this effort.”
Payne said the NAACP doesn’t have an issue with another board operating the rec center, but would like members of the Black community to be on the board.
“If there is a new board established to run the Cooper Street Rec Center, we would appreciate that the board consist of members from the Cooper Street community,” she said.
At a previous meeting, council members said they didn’t know what programs were being offered at the Cooper Street Rec Center. Murray said the board didn’t provide financials the city sought prior to New Cooper Street board President Dr. David Klein dying.
Murray said he met with Klein three times.
Murray said the lease is not legally sufficient and the city is working to bring it into compliance.
For those reasons, the City Council asked if other groups might operate the center. The council discussed asking a nonprofit that provides child care so it could meet the definition of public purpose.
Programs at the center
During public comment Wednesday, Dorian Zwierewicz told the City Council that the work he does at the Cooper Street Rec Center is free to the community.
Zwierewicz is regional director of the Florida Small Business Development Center at Florida Gulf Coast University.
He said the center has consultants who give assistance, government contracting registrations, business certificates and accessing capital funding for those considering opening a business and existing owners.
Patti Guerzo, SBDC business consultant, said there may be a “lack of awareness” of what’s done at the center. She said the SBDC was at the Chamber of Commerce. However, “without a budget for rent,” the SBDC welcomed a partnership with the New Cooper Street Rec Center for space.
Mark Odell, APEX accelerator with FGCU, said some of his clients would rather meet at the Cooper Street Rec Center to talk business. Odell said Naples and Marco Island clients have skipped Fort Myers to meet in Punta Gorda.
“We are grateful for the use of the Cooper Street Rec Center,” he said. “I think our presence has had a little bit of a side benefit in mitigating some of the blight and strengthening the neighborhood as well. We thank you for our continued partnership in whatever way that may be.”
Odell said local clients received $3.12 million in “direct federal government contracts, in addition to state, county and city awards,” from the free program. He said he’s working with veterans, minority and women-owned businesses.
After public comment, Murray spoke of misinformation. He said the City Council doesn’t have the ability to “disband” the New Cooper Street Board of Directors.
He said he’s had meetings with the new board president Jaha Cummings, who is a former Punta Gorda City Council member.
“We either bring it (the rec center lease) into compliance or we close the doors,” Murray said.
Murray said he asked Cummings for information and then it will be in a presentation to the City Council.
“No one has said the board or the rec center is going to change programs,” he said. “What they (the City Council) have said is we need to know what the programs are and how that can facilitate the community involvement and the community need that has always existed and has been served by that board and that facility.”