Long Beach awaits community center reopening

City of Long Beach employees Michael Malone, left, City of Long Beach employees Michael Malone, left, Henry Hall, Kyle Kielkowski and Juan Parra remove dry wall during repairs to the Long Beach Martin Luther King Center which was damaged during superstorm Sandy. (Feb. 15, 2013) Photo Credit: Steve Pfost

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For hundreds of Long Beach youths, the Long Beach Martin Luther King Center isn't just a community center -- it's where they learned to play basketball, worked with tutors on their homework, and forged long-lasting friendships.

That's why the city needs to get the facility -- wiped out by superstorm Sandy -- back up and running, supporters say.

"These children need your help more than ever before," Lawrence Egodigwe, a volunteer at the center, told Long Beach officials during a recent City Council meeting.

Reconstruction commenced on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and city officials say the 32-year-old center could welcome back patrons in eight weeks. Repairing the center's gymnasium could take slightly longer, public works Commissioner Jim LaCarrubba said.

The total cost of rehabilitating the facility -- which had two feet of flooding and lost its heating systems, kitchen and bathrooms -- will exceed $200,000, LaCarrubba said.

The Martin Luther King Center is critical to families in the surrounding area because it provides day care in addition to recreational and tutoring programs, city Councilman John McLaughlin said. The facility is a hub for Long Beach's black community but serves a diverse group of families, he said.

The day care program at the center, which has been suspended along with all of the center's programs since the storm, serves 86 children, city officials said.

"It's a very important program," McLaughlin said.

The city owns the facility and provides the day care service. The nonprofit Long Beach Martin Luther King Center Inc. runs other programs at the facility.

The reconstruction of the center was delayed because the city used it as a distribution center for clothes and household items after Sandy. Those services have been moved a few blocks to a storefront on Long Beach Boulevard.

Pastor Isaac R. Melton Jr., the city's community improvement coordinator, said the center became "a gathering place where people came to share, to care, to encourage, and even cry" after the storm.

But the wait for the center to reopen has some of its users antsy. Egodigwe said the city should dedicate more resources to it when it comes back.

"The talent that that center is breeding is something that people need to know about," Egodigwe said about the children who take part in its programs.

Srin Miah, who lives around the corner from the center, said her son Mohammad plays basketball there and is anxious for the reopening.

"It's important to a lot of people," she said.

City Council President Scott Mandel said the center's regulars will have their second home back soon.

"The center will soon be back better than ever," he said.

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