A long-promised community center slated for west Carrollton received another extension from the New Orleans City Council Thursday afternoon, but the years-old controversy over its management flared again amid traded accusations of secret agendas.
Funding for a three-building complex on a vacant lot in the 1700 block of Monroe was first secured by late state Rep. Alex Heaton in 2004. Hurricane Katrina threw the project off track, and the Hollygrove-based Trinity Christian Community later signed on to manage it. The council granted an extension on the project in 2010, but the money remained tied up at the state level while the design of the center was scaled back to fit the budget.
In late February of this year, Trinity Christian Community asked the City Planning Commission for another extension on its permission to build, saying that both the design and funding issues had been solved, and the measure passed without opposition. When it reached the City Council on Thursday afternoon, however, City Councilwoman Susan Guidry acknowledged that the controversy remains ongoing.
“There has been some contentiousness about it, but I am convinced that Trinity Christian Community is a good organization to take this ball and run with it,” Guidry said.
Further, Guidry said, the state allocation is use-it-or-lose-it.
“After many, many years in the making, the money is now available for construction,” Guidry said. If there is any change or much more delay, it will be determined that something else should be done with the money.”
Mickey Landry of the CHOICE Foundation that runs Lafayette Academy praised Trinity Christian Community, and TCC director Kevin Brown said his goal is to bring the services the organization has offered for 47 years in Hollygrove to a new neighborhood.
Neighborhood leader and businessman Tilman Hardy, however, asked the council to delay a vote. Guidry had started a community mediation process that needs to continue, Hardy said, and the only meetings that have been held so far have been closed to the public. Further, Hardy said Trinity Christian Community has acted “irresponsibly” in not beginning construction after so long.
“I could go on as to why I do not support it beyond the lack of community engagement, but I think that’s serious enough to delay a vote,” Hardy said.
Jason Coleman, who lives a block and a half from the site, regularly cited lack of progress the community center in his recent challenge to Guidry for the City Council. The neighborhood’s discussions with Trinity Christian Community and executive director Kevin Brown need to continue before the project should be voted on, Coleman said.
“Nobody disagrees with the work that Kevin is doing, but that’s not what’s on the table today,” Coleman said. “You can’t build something on a weak foundation, and what you’re saying now is that the people don’t matter. We need to make sure we get this right this time.”
Guidry, however, disputed that characterization of the meetings held so far. She asked Community Mediation Services (after their successful facilitation of discussions between Jimmy’s Music Club and neighbors) to hold what she intended as a single meeting in hopes of building consensus, but the opponents refused to make any concessions and simply demanded more meetings, Guidry said.
Further, she said, Hardy himself wanted to be the recipient of this same state allocation for a commercial building he owns on Leonidas Street, known as the Leonidas House. In 2012, Hardy received rezoning to move his business there, but Guidry said it remains vacant, with broken windows and grafitti.
“This should be stated so everyone can understand what the picture is,” Guidry said.
Hardy returned to the microphone to say his project was moving forward on its own, funded by his own private money.
“You were going to be invited to groundbreaking ceremony, but considering the events today, I may have to reconsider,” Hardy said.
Guidry shot back that she’ll be pleased to see a groundbreaking there, whether she is invited or not.
Monroe Street resident Maisha Davis then spoke up in Trinity Christian’s defense, saying that she has a sister who began in the program at age 7 and is now in college because of it. Her own son is now on the same track, Davis said.
“Whatever they are doing, I am for it,” Davis said.
The conversation then turned to the other City Council members, each of whom approached it from a slightly different direction. Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson said she has watched state leaders “shepherd” it since 2004, and that it would be a shame to lose it over personal agendas. Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer said she understood the difficult of actually receiving state construction money, even after it has been allocated, and that neither Trinity Christian Community nor Guidry should be held responsible for the long time that it has taken.
Palmer also vouched for Trinity Christian Community, likening the citywide impact of a neighborhood-based organization to similar efforts by the Broadmoor Improvement Association. Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, who led Broadmoor until her election, said she also knew firsthand the impact made by Trinity Christian Community.
Only Councilman James Gray expressed reservations about the issue. He said his staff hasn’t had time to research it on their own, so he would trust Guidry’s judgment, but that he didn’t think advocating for the project should include an “attack” on its opponents.
Without further discussion, the extension of the conditional use to build the community center passed with a 7-0 vote by the Council.