Modesto will spend more than $500,000 to turn a vacant, boarded-up duplex into a community center in the airport neighborhood, one of the city's poorest and most crime-riddled areas.
The center is the latest in a string of improvements for the area and long has been anticipated by residents in the neighborhood bordered by the E.&J. Gallo Winery to the west, the Modesto Airport to the east, Yosemite Boulevard to the north and the Tuolumne River to the south.
"It's a great opportunity," said Yasmin Salceda, one of the neighborhood's community leaders. "There are lots of kids roaming around, doing nothing, just doing trouble. The community center will benefit our community."
The duplex is on the 800 block of Empire Avenue, next to Orville Wright Elementary School. The city purchased the 2,240-square-foot duplex and its quarter-acre lot for $85,000 last year. The council approved last week spending $431,141 for engineering, design and construction work for the project.
The funding comes from the federal Community Development Block Grant and stimulus programs, said Hugo Ramírez, community development program specialist II with the city.
Workers will gut the duplex's interior and convert it into a community center. The project should be completed by March or April and includes a commercial kitchen, three offices, meeting rooms and landscaping, as well as restrooms that comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Ramírez said residents have wanted a community center for many years. He said the center is a critical component of an airport neighborhood revitalization plan approved by the council a few years ago.
But he stressed the city is working with Stanislaus County, Modesto City Schools, nonprofit groups, airport neighborhood residents and other stakeholders to improve the neighborhood.
"None of this has been done by the city alone," Ramírez said. "This has truly been a collaboration."
Orville Wright and the Tuolumne River Trust will use the facility. Instead of paying rent, Orville Wright will clean the center and maintain the grounds, according to the lease agreement between the city and Modesto City Schools. The trust will pay the city $350 in monthly rent.
Modesto could house code enforcement and community development workers in the center or rent its space to a nonprofit or agency working to better the neighborhood.
Orville Wright Principal Heather Sherburn said the community center will allow for more efforts to improve the neighborhood and the lives of its residents.
The center could have such activities as Boy and Girl Scout troops, student council meetings, student art exhibits, fitness classes for children and adults, a food pantry and clothes closet, and community meetings.
Supporters said that there is no single place that can house all of these activities and the community center is located in the heart of the neighborhood.
The Tuolumne River Trust's services will include nature education and sports activities for fourth- through sixth-graders, as well as working with residents to improve the neighborhood.
"Our role is to work with the families," said Karlha Davies, nature and neighborhood program director for the trust.
Davies said the three big projects for the coming year are a community-based neighborhood cleanup, curbing the number of dogs wandering the neighborhood by promoting responsible pet ownership, and planting a community garden in the community center's back yard.
Salceda, whose two sons attend Orville Wright, said the neighborhood is in better shape than when she moved in nearly seven years ago.
Police are a more visible presence and are getting involved with the community. Residents worked with Tuolumne River Trust and others to build a soccer field last year.
Ramírez said the city is nearing completion of a $1.3 million project to widen Empire Avenue between Monterey Avenue and Hillside Drive. The project includes sidewalks, curbs and streetlights.
"You should see the street," Salceda said. "It's so nice. It has sidewalks."
Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2316.