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MLK Center, Long Beach wrestle over control of community center

James Hodge is board chairman of the Long

James Hodge is board chairman of the Long Beach Martin Luther King Center. Credit: Jeff Bachner

The operators of the Long Beach Martin Luther King Center, which has been shuttered for nearly a year, are wrestling with the City of Long Beach over future control of the community center.

Lease negotiations have stalled over the city's proposal to allow other nonprofits to use the center, which has operated out of the North Park neighborhood since 1981. In turn, the nonprofit operator MLK Inc. would be allowed to expand its services to two other community facilities in the city — the Magnolia Recreation Center and the West End Community Center.

"We’re not trying to stop the MLK Center from doing any programs. The goal of the city is get a lease for the building with the proper protocols to offer services," said Long Beach City Manager Donna Gayden.

The Riverside Boulevard center has not had a lease for 25 years and has not paid rent in the city-owned building for at least a decade. Past-due rent has been forgiven by prior city administrations, an attorney for the city said, but a month-to-month agreement has been in place.

The center first closed in March because of the pandemic lockdown ordered by the state. Organizers continued to use the center's kitchen until the city had to change the locks in May because of a faulty fire alarm, and were then told they were unable to use the facility without a lease. The city also is requiring a COVID-19 safety plan. The center is currently only open to administrative staff.

The MLK center located in North Park, a predominantly Latino and African American neighborhood, has for decades offered youth recreation programs, tutoring, after-school programs and a kitchen to prepare meals for seniors and families.

"We find ourselves in a situation that’s very unfortunate, not just for North Park, but for the City of Long Beach as we have always been there to serve the community," MLK board chairman James Hodge said. "This is the longest in the organization’s history we have not been able to do programs in the building."

Programs started in 1967 as a collaboration among the NAACP, MLK Inc. founders and the city. The community center was built in 1981 by the city, which leased it to the MLK organization for $1,500 annually, requiring liability insurance. The last lease for $2,000 expired in 1995, when MLK organizers became month-to-month tenants.

The center, which stood as a beacon for shelter to residents during Superstorm Sandy, serves about 300 families and operates with a $300,000 annual budget supported with Nassau County grants and fundraising.

John Gross, the city’s outside counsel, said the MLK Center needs a lease to protect the city from liability and to monitor building maintenance.

"This is not intended to be a moneymaking prospect for the city," Gross said. "The approach in these negotiations has not been to rattle swords."

Center executive director Mack Graham, who started his role in October, said the organization already works with other nonprofits and that reducing space of the facility would reduce funding.

He said that proposals of programs at other parts of the city would limit services to the North Park community.

"There are a lot of political things going on right now interfering with our ability to serve the community at need in this crucial time," Graham said.

After the city announced last month that lease negotiations had resumed and called for a "modest rent payment," posts on social media sites suggested that the center was going to be closed and redeveloped. The online speculation prompted city officials to fire back at former City Council president Anissa Moore, who posted on Facebook that the city was converting the MLK Center into condos.

A city council statement called the rumors "a blatant lie seemingly intended to confuse and inflame the public." The city also noted that the MLK Center has not complied with regulations during the pandemic and stopped negotiations for several months before resuming talks in October.

City council members, who previously have attended events at the center, did not participate in a protest march and rally on Martin Luther King Day.

Long Beach officials also did not provide video statements, citing scheduling conflicts, for a virtual event that featured other elected officials, including Nassau County Executive Laura Curran, Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach) and Assemb. Melissa Miller (R-Atlantic Beach).

"We’re hopeful there can be a good result for the people of Long Beach," said Hempstead-based attorney for the MLK Center Frederick K. Brewington, while declining to discuss negotiations.

The MLK Center has submitted several COVID-19 safety plans, which city officials have reviewed and sent feedback on — such as eliminating contact sports and staggering more than 30 programs for 150 children, who cannot be at the center at the same time. Hodge said the center also has provided its own liability coverage as a condition of the lease. They began offering virtual programs this month.

"I believe when these elected officials sit back and think about what they’re doing to the poorest people in the City of Long Beach, they would see we are a safe haven for the community," Hodge said.

City council president John Bendo said the city reached out to the center last July, but the MLK board refused to negotiate until October. He said negotiations are underway to finalize a lease.

"The City has been unequivocal in its public statements that we want and need the Martin Luther King Center to restore its services to the Long Beach community," Bendo said.

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