Education

Residents’ pleas stall demolition of historic black gym in Huntersville

The Torrence-Lytle School (in this photo) is the first African-American high school in Huntersville. Residents are unhappy that the school has fallen into disrepair and appealed to Mecklenburg County leaders to preserve the school gym, which faced demolition.
The Torrence-Lytle School (in this photo) is the first African-American high school in Huntersville. Residents are unhappy that the school has fallen into disrepair and appealed to Mecklenburg County leaders to preserve the school gym, which faced demolition. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

After protest from residents, Mecklenburg County leaders are backing off a plan to demolish a historic gym in Huntersville that was the heart of the area’s African-American community for a half-century.

More than 50 people gathered Tuesday at Huntersville Town Hall. After hearing about park and recreation projects, residents urged the county to keep the Waymer Center standing.

Rather than tear it down, they want the gym refurbished so it offers recreational programs for the area’s youth – many of whom don’t have the transportation or means to attend other recreation programs.

“We’re … only asking you to provide what’s due to the citizenry as you do in other communities,” said Dora DuBose, a retired county employee who oversaw operations at the Waymer Center for a decade. “Do not demolish the Waymer gym.”

Passions stirred this summer when the county said it planned to raze the gym because repairing it would be too costly. The gym is one of several old buildings that make up the site of the Torrence-Lytle School, the first African-American high school in Huntersville.

Many of those buildings, in the historic Pottstown community, belong to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission, but Mecklenburg County owns the gym.

Officials said the center’s upkeep wasn’t worth the money since the building is old, its electrical systems aged and its interior contaminated with asbestos. In response, residents organized a campaign showing opposition.

Jim Garges, county park and recreation director, said Tuesday that the county had two options: Pay $900,000 for renovations, or destroy the gym and work with the town of Huntersville to build another recreation center on that site.

“We don’t do anything in a town that a town doesn’t want to have done,” Garges said.

Who dropped the ball?

Mecklenburg County commissioner Ella Scarborough

That did little to appease some county commissioners, upset that the gym and other Torrence-Lytle buildings have fallen into disrepair.

“Who dropped the ball?” asked Commissioner Ella Scarborough, who co-hosted the meeting with Commissioner Jim Puckett. “There’s no way in southeast Charlotte you’d see a building look like this building (does) now.”

Commissioner Pat Cotham agreed: “We owe this community something beautiful because they’ve had to look at something disgusting.”

We owe this community something beautiful because they’ve had to look at something disgusting.

Mecklenburg County commissioner Pat Cotham

The historic landmarks commission hopes to redevelop the Torrence-Lytle property (excluding the gym), although its years-long search for a developer has been fruitless, said commission President Dan Morrill.

If no developers show interest by Dec. 14, the commission will use $450,000 to rid the buildings of asbestos and stabilize the main school building’s roof and foundation before putting it back on the market, Morrill said. They’ll use an additional $600,000 to renew the 1937 school building if developers don’t buy the property within a year.

While there’s widespread support for transforming the school site, residents said Tuesday that they want the gym included in preservation plans.

Blanche Penn, a county park and recreation employee, said her first job was at the gym, where she worked long hours, making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with children who came to know and trust her.

“We want to make sure this town is not neglected,” she said.

It has sentimental value. It means a lot to us.

Dora DuBose

DuBose spoke of the days when the center’s programs ran seven days a week and served everyone “from tots to seniors.”

“It has sentimental value,” she said. “It means a lot to us.”

That value has been endangered over the years. Outside organizations began using the facility after the county leased it to the town in the 1990s. It became so crowded that residents could only use the gym one day a week, DuBose said.

“That cuts deep,” she said.

Her pleas, coupled with statements from teens who said they had limited recreation options, prompted the county to change course. Garges said the gym’s renovation will hinge on how commissioners vote in the coming months.

“It will take five votes on the county commission. You have four of them in the room,” Puckett said, pointing to himself, Cotham, Scarborough and Chairman Trevor Fuller at the meeting.

Jonathan McFadden: 704-358-6045, @JmcfaddenObsGov

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