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Punta Gorda City Council and representatives of the YMCA of Southwest Florida approached a lease agreement for New Operation Cooper Street during a special session May 14 where members of the public commented on the matter. 

The decision not to renew the current lease, which expires June 30, came after Council deemed the recreation center, which has served the east side of the city for decades, lacked structure and leadership under its existing board. 

But critics charged that the center located at 650 Mary St. was serving the needs of its citizens in hosting a variety of programs over the years, including child care, after-school activities, mentoring programs for high school graduates and senior services. 

Jaha Cummings, the board president of New Operation Cooper Street, is a former council member and is in talks with the YMCA, which was chosen to assume leadership. 

Some residents feared that under the Y’s leadership the rec center would not continue serving the needs of area residents living on the east side of town. 

During Jim Crow laws, the rec center was a gathering and social place for Black residents who were not allowed to join clubs and other organizations elsewhere in the city. 

Dances, weddings, celebrations, and funerals have taken place at New Operation Cooper Street, the site and gathering place for the Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade each year. 

“I went to the rec center there and first grade before it was the rec center. We weren’t allowed to go other places because of segregation,” Rev. Ellison Haddock told Council. 

He wanted to know whether the annual MLK parade celebration would continue there. 

Haddock was one of 10 residents who expressed concerns over the fate of the rec center. 

New Operation Cooper Street in Punta GordaJeannine Polk, who is running for the District 1 Council seat in November, said the mural on the city-owned building painted by Charles Peck, “reminds us of our past,” and should not be painted over or removed. She asked the city to give the Y a one-year lease. 

Kay Abbs said the city should give the Y a six-month lease, and others thought the Y should pay fair market rent. 

Mike Polk, who identified himself as an attorney and property appraiser for nearly four decades, calculated the value of the city-owned 11,366squarefoot building and said the rent should be $90,000 annually. 

The city had been leasing the building for $1 per year for about 25 years to New Operation Cooper Street. It has had similar deals in other parts of the city with buildings and land it owns. 

After the public portion, Gene T. Jones, president and CEO of the YMCA of Southwest Florida, and Shannon Matthews, chief operating officer, gave a slide presentation on what the YMCA does and the services it provides. 

Matthews said she attended a community board meeting in February 2022 and met Cummings who, she said, told her he “was in dire straits with child care.”  

Lacking funding for the center’s 15 children, the Y, which was operating the Bayfront YMCA prior to its destruction during Hurricane Ian, arranged for a bus to transport the children to the Bayfront site and through June never received a payment for providing services for the children, she said. 

In June, the Y obtained a license to provide child care for up to 125 children. After Hurricane Ian, it provided 1,323 meals to children in the community, distributed 880 meals through churches and provided lunches and free child care to the community. 

Jones said he wants New Operation Cooper Street to become a food distribution center, as well as provide afterschool care, summer camp, enrichment activities, a Y Reads program and pickleball. 

Currently 65 children are enrolled in the Y-run program at New Operation Cooper Street. 

He also admitted that the Y, a nonprofit organization, will probably not make a profit by taking over the rec center, adding that it isn’t going to run the rec center “to make money, but to serve the community.” 

Matthews said scholarships and grant funding will be arranged for those families who cannot afford to pay. 

Mayor Lynne Matthews stipulated that the new board at New Operation Cooper Street should have members from the neighborhood and a District 1 council member who will serve as a liaison to assure “open communication at all times.” 

Council member Bill Dryburgh said he’d like to see a computer class for students to help them succeed. 

Jones assured Council that the mural will not be touched, the center will serve a public purpose and be open to the entire community and no one will be turned away if they cannot pay. 

He also said the MLK celebration and events, such as weddings and funerals can take place on nights and weekends when the Y is not providing children’s services. 

Lynne Matthews asked for a consensus, and three of the five council members favored a five-year lease, and all members agreed that the YMCA should pay its own utility bills. 

Also, the $650 monthly rent the YMCA offered may further be negotiated, as well as the length of the lease. Originally, the YMCA asked for four years. 

Next, the matter goes to the city’s Procurement Department and will undergo the Y’s attorney review before the matter comes before the board again. The lease is slated to go into effect June 1. 

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