North Hempstead's $27.1 million Yes We Can Community Center, designed to be the busy centerpiece of a revitalized New Cassel, failed to meet revenue projections in its first year and saw sales of memberships plummet.
Residents say the fees are too high and the offerings too few in a community where 17.8 percent of the population has an income lower than the federal poverty designation.
Those who have purchased the $30 annual individual youth resident membership say there's little to do at the center other than play basketball, which they can play elsewhere for free. A youth fitness center membership is another $120 each year, and separate fees are required for dance or exercise classes.
"That building is beautiful, but . . . how do you expect for someone to pay that fee when you've got nine or 10 people in one household?" said Cassandra Boston, 48, a mother of eight in New Cassel.
North Hempstead Supervisor Judi Bosworth said town officials must re-evaluate Yes We Can, named after President Barack Obama's 2008 campaign slogan. She said the center, which opened in September 2012, is a "work in progress" in the middle of "growing pains." Bosworth took office Jan. 1 and was not involved in the center's original planning.
"We need to take a good look at what is being offered here, and if there is a way to restructure it so that it is something that the community feels is worthwhile being a part of," Bosworth said.
The Yes We Can center revenue for 2013 was projected to be $325,000. Instead, the facility generated $177,000 for the year -- 15 percent of its $1.197 million budget, town officials said. The difference is made up with funds from the town's park budget in its general fund.
This year's budget was increased to $1.199 million, but the revenue projection was decreased to $170,000.
"If people were using it, and there was money lost, that would be OK, because of the other benefits for the society," said Margaret Dewar, a professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Michigan, whose research includes low-income neighborhoods and remaking communities.
"But if it's not used, that's another matter."
The number of one-month general memberships sold dropped last year to 29 in December from 129 in November.
Sales of one-year memberships also declined. The center sold 48 annual memberships in September 2012, 87 in October of that year, 43 in November and 54 in December, according to data provided by town officials. In 2013, those figures for annual membership sales fell to 14 in September, 14 in October, 16 for November and 9 for December.
Officials reported 641 active members at the end of last year, 209 of whom are in the senior program Project Independence and can join the center for free.
Former Town Supervisor Jon Kaiman said the center -- with two NBA-sized basketball courts, a television studio and educational rooms -- "was a townwide investment, a townwide center."
But 92 percent of its members last year came from the ZIP code for New Cassel and Westbury, according to pass data provided by the town.
"It takes time for some people to get involved," Kaiman said. "The goal was to open it up, get people in, give the community this resource, then over time, learn what was effective, what brought in the most benefit, the most service and dollars. There was no expectation it was going to pay for itself or we needed to have 300 memberships."
The grand opening in September 2012 featured then-New York Knicks player Marcus Camby signing autographs and local leaders calling Yes We Can a milestone for a community devoid of a hub as local youth centers closed over the years.
"They made it to keep you out of trouble," said Westbury High School student Shalike Merchant, 16, Boston's son. "I thought it was going to be fun. . . . I would come and work out."
Boston said Shalike wanted to use the weight room and join aerobics classes, but the separate fee for the fitness center caught her by surprise.
Bosworth said the fee schedule must be evaluated, but "fees are there for a reason, so that the people that are using the facility are helping to pay for it."
"We're looking at strategies to identify what is working, what isn't working, and the things we need to do to change it, so it's more successful," she said.
Neptune RTS, an electric transmission business that was moving to New Cassel, provided $10 million in seed money for the Yes We Can center. Funding also came from state and federal grants, including a $250,000 construction grant from the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York; an $892,100 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant program; and $1.15 million from Verizon for the television studio.
Additionally, North Hempstead issued $28 million in bond anticipation notes for the project, according to town spokesman Ryan Mulholland. The town has about $200,000 in additional grant money that it hasn't spent.
Town officials said they have developed other uses for the center, which houses its emergency command center, 311 call center and a warming center for residents who lacked power after superstorm Sandy.
But attracting members from outside New Cassel can be difficult, experts said, because residents often stick to facilities in their own communities.
Dewar said North Hempstead officials "need to find out more about why people are not coming, and they need to try to increase use, and maybe that means reducing the price; often if you reduce the price, you get more revenue."
Bosworth said the town would look at "everything."
"I view it as a challenge, and I think we're up to the challenge," she said.
The Yes We Can Community Center
Opened: September 2012
Features: 60,000-square-foot facility, with 2 NBA-sized basketball courts, TV studio, fitness center, reading rooms; platinum LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified, with solar paneled rooftops, solar trees, electric vehicle recharging stations.
$30 annual for youth/teen membership
$60 annual for adult resident membership
(Free for Project Independence members)
Resident youth members can pay $120 extra for the year
Banquet Room, to Rent: $450 for 4 hours, (resident rate)
Projected & Received Revenues:
"Yes We Can" 2013 Budget:
Budgeted revenue in 2013:
Received revenue in 2013:
Yes We Can 2014 Budget:
Source: Town officials