A new chapter

After months of speculation and uncertainty about the future, the former Eastside Community Center will begin its next chapter this week with a new name and a renewed vision.

The community center at 421 McClure Road will officially be named the Roby Anderson Community Center in a special ceremony Thursday, honoring the facility’s late founders, Roby and America Anderson, who started the program nearly 40 years ago. Once it is officially up and running, the center will take a new direction to become a community gathering place for all local residents.

The Andersons launched the original Eastside Community Center — first known as the Morningside Neighborhood Association — in 1976, when they began offering meals to the hungry out of their garage.

The building that became known as Eastside Community Center was built in 1978, and the Andersons began offering their annual Thanksgiving dinner, one of the center’s most popular services, in 1979.

After multiple bouts of financial difficulties, Eastside unexpectedly closed its doors last October after executive director Sue Lamborn and the entire board of directors resigned from their positions without any explanation. A transition team consisting of representatives from United Way of Bartholomew County, Heritage Fund — The Community Foundation of Bartholomew County, the State Street Area Association and city government then stepped in to find a way to keep the center afloat.

Ultimately, United Way chose to become an umbrella organization to oversee limited services in the building while a grassroots organization could be formed to lead the center into the future, said Mark Stewart, United Way president.

“What we’re trying to do is transition it to a different organization and really not be out there in front,” Stewart said. “Our intent was to be an interim solution.”

Signing the lease

United Way signed a six-month lease to become the tenant of the Eastside Community Center building in February, paying the city $1 for the full six months. Since that time, the organization has held oversight of the building as other community groups have continued to help the residents who use services there.For example, Thrive Alliance offers a daily meal service at the center for senior citizens, while the Columbus Police Department has continued to host the Homework with an Officer program for local students, Stewart said.

United Way’s role has been to serve as a trainer for the up-and-coming organization to work with those community groups to continue to offer the services residents want most, Stewart said.

To help the grassroots organization plan for the future, United Way teamed up with the State Street Area Association to complete a needs assessment with residents who live near the building to determine what services they would like to see offered at the facility.

That effort is about halfway complete, Stewart said, and the overwhelming message he has received is that residents care more about the center being officially re-opened than they do about the actual services that are offered.

“There’s a great deal of pride within the neighborhood,” Stewart said. “It’s not as much as what services are available as having that community space for folks to come together and talk about what’s important.”

But local resident Joseph Critney said he has a few definitive ideas of what he’d like to see in the new Roby Anderson Community Center.

Critney, who has been regularly visiting Eastside for years, said before the building closed last fall, he had planned to use the center’s computers to learn basic computing skills, but never got the opportunity to take lessons. Once the building is officially re-opened, Critney said he hopes it will be equipped with computers so he can finally learn how to use them.

Critney also said he always enjoyed the center’s annual Thanksgiving dinner and was disappointed it wasn’t offered this year.

In general, he said the building’s closure came as a shock to the eastside community.

“It was thriving,” Critney said. “I was surprised when it closed. They were willing to help anyone.”

District 1 Columbus City Councilman Dascal Bunch, who represents the neighborhood where Eastside Community Center is located, said he also heard from his neighbors and constituents that they were surprised and upset when the building closed.

The loss of a common community space hit residents hard, Bunch said, so re-opening the building with a new name and new direction will be a positive first step toward giving eastside residents the community resources they once depended on.

“It’s always been needed, and when it shut down, it was a concern,” he said.

Invite to Columbus

Although the exact resources and services that will be offered when the center is re-opened under new management have not been determined, Stewart said he hopes it will become a place where all Columbus residents will feel welcome.The community center will continue to focus on the specific needs of eastside residents, but all people living in Columbus will be encouraged to utilize whatever services are offered at the center, Stewart said.

That community-wide inclusion will begin with the dedication ceremony for the Roby Anderson Community Center on Thursday, said Julie Bilz, State Street Area Association president.

Starting at 5 p.m., all Columbus residents will be invited to a free spaghetti dinner at the center to celebrate its next chapter of life, Bilz said.

Then at 6 p.m., Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop will read a proclamation officially dedicating the building with its new name.

Finally, at 6:30 p.m., Bilz will call a meeting of the State Street Area Association to order in the newly-renamed building. All Columbus residents are invited to attend the meeting, which will feature entrepreneurs who plan on opening businesses in the State Street corridor, Bilz said.

Although the re-naming ceremony will mark the beginning of a new chapter for the community center, it will still be a few months before it is operating independently of United Way, Stewart said.

United Way’s lease of the building is set to expire in August, but Stewart said it is too soon to know if his organization will need to renew that lease once it is up. It could be another three to four months until the grassroots organization he is working to build up will be completely ready to take over the reins, he said.

In the interim, United Way will continue to oversee any operations at the community center and will continue to provide the necessary resources to the fledgling grassroots group to ensure it will be able to succeed once it takes over permanently, Stewart said.

“What’s really important is to set it up for success, and the organization is already having that happen,” he said.

If you go

Re-opening of the former Eastside Community Center

  • What: Official re-opening of the former Eastside Community Center building as the Roby Anderon Community Center, spaghetti dinner and State Street Area Association meeting
  • When: Thursday, dinner at 5 p.m., proclamation at 6 p.m., meeting at 6:30 p.m.
  • Where: 421 McClure Road, Columbus
  • How much: Free and open to the public

ECC timeline

1976: East Columbus residents Roby and America Anderson launch Morningside Neighborhood Association, predecessor to Eastside Community Center, from their garage on Parkway Drive two blocks behind the McClure Road facility. They serve meals to the hungry.

1978: The 1,400-square-foot facility is built with bricks from a building demolished to make room for a new Columbus City Hall on Washington Street.

Dec. 19, 1978: A 50-year lease is signed between the city and the center for a $1 annual payment. A $50 check was written at that time to pay the lease in full for 50 years.

1979: The Andersons serve Eastside’s first Thanksgiving meal to 11 people. The annual Thanksgiving meal grew in popularity to more than 1,000 people in 2011.

1997: United Way of Bartholomew County cuts funding to the center, putting the center’s future in jeopardy.

1998: Priscilla Scalf is hired as executive director and immediately begins work with then-city council member August Tindell to secure a $25,000 grant to save the center.

1999: Eastside launches individual development accounts to boost low-income residents’ finances.

2000: A $30,000 renovation for the facility is unveiled.

2001: Eastside begins offering financial literacy classes.

2012: Another renovation, including new flooring, storage, paint and interior decor, is completed.

2013: Eastside loses its United Way funding due to a $60,000 payroll tax debt.

June 2015: Priscilla Scalf submits her resignation, effective, July 15, as Eastside’s executive director.

July 2015: Sue Lamborn is appointed the center’s new executive director.

October 2015: Lamborn resigns as director and the center closes its doors on Oct. 26. In addition to Lamborn, three other people were on the Eastside payroll. The center’s board of directors, including board president Angela Shafer, also resign.

Feb. 2, 2016: The Columbus Board of Works unanimously votes to terminate the original 50-year lease and awards a new six-month lease to United Way of Bartholomew County for $1.

May 5, 2016: The building will be re-opened as the Roby Anderson Community Center to honor the program’s founders.

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Olivia Covington is a reporter for The Republic. She can be reached at ocovington@therepublic.com or 812-379-5712.