ROCKINGHAM — The Ashley Chapel Community Center has come a long way from where it was, but it’s nowhere near where the “Chapeltown” leadership — as its affectionately known — want it to be.
Established in 1962, the center had become dilapidated over the years, and when its longtime president, John Patterson, passed in 2006, the community came together to keep it going until 2012 before shutting down. With renewed support, community leaders came together in 2016 to put together a 3-year plan to renovate the center and put it in position to grow into the future, with inspiration from the past.
But the renovations had to begin somewhere, and Willie Johnson and John Harrington took it upon themselves. Over the course of a year-and-a-half, the two — vice president and president of the organization, respectively — power-washed, painted, and otherwise repaired the “mess” the center was to bring it to a point of respectability that would allow it to be rented out. They funded the repairs through donations, member fees and out of their own pockets.
“We said, ‘We’re going to keep moving forward,’” Johnson said of the organization’s attitude at the time. “Blood, sweat and tears.”
Harrington said he said he saw “great opportunity” in the center beyond the substantial repairs that had to be done.
“When people saw work being done, others jumped in,” he said.
Ultimately, the organization wants the center to be a place where “youth and wisdom can meet under the same roof and embrace a learning environment” according to its vision statement. Phase one of the renovations, remodeling the upper level, is now nearly complete and the space was able to host a well-attended forum for county commissioner and school board candidates in May.
The lower level, though much better than it was prior to a clean-up effort in April, is still far from ready. It has classrooms that they want to use for GED training and space they want to use for a computer lab. They also hope to host movie nights and other youth events, all under the original Ashley Chapel Community Youth Organization banner which still hangs there.
Johnson said he had a dream of using the expansive land on which the center sits to host a fair, to have a pool — surrounded by beach sand — that would stretch the length of the building, a baseball field, tennis and basketball courts and new playground equipment. Lofty goals, “but it can happen,” Johnson said.
With the revival of the Ashley Chapel Community Organization, which is in the process of applying for nonprofit status to help secure grant funding, its leaders were able to get its finances in order and secure $5,000 from the Richmond County Board of Commissioners last year. That money went to replace heating and air conditioning units which were stolen during the period the center was idle.
At the May meeting of the county board, Harrington, Johnson, and the chairman of the organization’s governing board, Richard “Nick” Nicholson, asked the county for $20,000 to $25,000 to complete the last two phases of their plan, hoping that they would at least match the previous year’s allotment, if not meet somewhere in the middle. But due to the county’s tight financial situation, the organization was only awarded $1,000 in this year’s budget.
The reduced funds — though still appreciated — has set their schedule back a few years.
“My heart hit the floor,” Johnson said. “It tore all our plans up, but it is what it is.”
Nicholson said the organization is working to show the county that it is a “viable entity” that is “producing a product that is going to be valuable to the community at large.”
“We’re trying to get our people to rededicate to our community,” Nicholson said. “We have the manpower but we don’t have the funds.”
He added that if the funding had gone through, they would likely be running after-school and senior programs right now. Their next meeting is the first Tuesday of July, where they will figure out the next steps to continue the carry out their plan.
“If we try to reach for the sky when we haven’t even been crawling, we won’t get anywhere,” Nicholson said. “We’re trying to reach the tree tops, once we reach that we’ll reach for the sky.”
Reach Gavin Stone at 910-817-2674 or [email protected]