To Have and Have Not In South Florida

Isabelle De Pommereau
November 1, 1997

Police Sgt. Walter Rogers feels at home in Coral Gables' shiny youth center. He only has to run down one flight of stairs to a bright indoor basketball court to shoot hoops with kids, something he considers as much part of his job as chasing young truants.

The youth officer has a stake in the Mediterranean-style facility that blends in with the surrounding enclave of expensive Spanish villas. Rogers' five-member youth unit contributed $1 million in law enforcement funds toward the center's renovation, and then moved in after it reopened in March. "It put us more where we want to be,” he said, "to get the dialogue going with kids and parents here."

Having the police in the youth center isn't coincidental, it was central to what this wealthy city of 43,000 envisioned when it embarked on a $10 million renovation project, easily the most extensive youth project ever undertaken since Coral Gables was created 75 years ago. Planning of the facility's style, colors and programming was carefully orchestrated to create what architect John Fullerton calls a "holistic kind of family place."

Miles from Miami's decaying neighborhoods. the shimmering center offers everything from basketball to drama classes and a movie theater in a 57,000 square-foot facility that has the Andalusian arabesques and hues so inherent to "the city beautiful."

Living War Memorial

An oasis of harmony tucked in the shade of flowering vines and mangrove trees, the Coral Gables War Memorial Youth Center, created in 1944 as a living war memorial, is not just an expensive recreation provider in one of America's wealthiest communities. "It's like a community promotion atmosphere," says a mother, Joan Astigarraga. That's perhaps why, outside Florida's borders, some youth workers describe the Coral Gables center as one of the most forward-looking in the nation, one that is designed to respond to the increasingly complex needs faced by youth rich and poor alike, from drug use to alcoholic parents.

"It's an extraordinary integrated kind of response," says David Reed, a recreation planning consultant in Eugene, Ore. who's helped communities design parks, recreation facilities and purpose-built youth centers for three decades. "It sets standards all cities should strive to achieve."

The center resembles a Spanish museum, combining the functional with the aesthetics; encouraging different generations to mingle; and ties recreation with youth development and broader life issues. The presence of cops help teens better understand the police and vice versa; "Women in the Making" and "introduction to Fitness" are among classes offered to teens.

"We tried to be innovative and fun with shapes, colors, areas." says John Fullerton of Cora Gables, hired by the city to entirely redesign the facility. "We took advantage of the sun, the breeze." The result? "It's open, yet it's secure."

Walk past two giant concrete basketballs into an airy' circular lobby with light flowing down from an art-deco cupola.

Meander through bright green corridors and a world of activities will open up for children, teens and adults: a dance studio; a ceramic studio with a kiln room; a regulation-size indoor basketball court with two cross-courts for practice; a room for teens with ping pong tables and computers; a toddler's room so that parents can use the center; and upstairs, a meeting place for senior citizens.

Outside, walk across a Mediterranean-style courtyard to the center's concession stand and grab a hamburger in the shade of Royal palms. Further away, a 100-seat theater offers drama classes as well as a high resolution video project system connected to computers; large screens can also roll down for movie screening.

Poor Neighbors

The $10-million Coral Gables Youth Center (it cost $3 million to build new athletic fields and $7.5 million –to redesign and construct the facility) points up the wide disparities in opportunities that exist for South Florida's kids. Just a short car ride away, in Miami's worst ghetto, youth centers are struggling along on shoestring budgets. Aspira of Florida is one of them.

One of the biggest youth leadership organizations in South Florida, Aspira serves 13,000 youths a year who live in the state's most disenfranchised areas, including Wynwood, near the Overtown ghetto and Little Havana. Ninety percent of its $2.7 million budget, which covers gang prevention and after-school programs, comes from public sources that range from the Metro-Dade Commission to the state of Florida and federal agencies. Yet, getting grants is increasingly competitive.

"If we're not here there's nothing for these kids,' says Anita Rasky, the group's deputy director. Parents of Coral Gables youths could well afford to pay for the services that Aspira provides for free. "We call it a youth sanctuary."

-In 1989 and for three years after that, Aspira received a $265,000 gang prevention program grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Family and Youth Services Bureau. The money helped Aspira's youth workers provide assistance to 2,400 potential gang members and school dropouts in the Wynwood area.

-For the second year in a row, Aspira this year received a $200,000 community school grant from HHS. The grant was supposed to be for five years, but there are signs it might be cut next year, “It would be a disaster," Rasky says. "That pays for four [youth workers] at three local schools and after-school teachers."

-Aspira this year got a $50,000 "Pathway to Success" grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to fund after-school programs in rural Homestead.

-For the third year, it received $200,000 from the U.S. Department of Education's Talent Search to encourage low-income youths to go to college. "It's more competitive now," says children's advocate Jack Levine, director of the Florida Center for Children and Families. He says that in Florida the gap between the state's per capita income and the percentage of children who are living in poverty is growing. 'There is no greater disparity than among the families that can provide for their children and the families that are desperate to care for their children," says Levine.

Although Florida ranks 20th in terms of its per capita income, the state ranks toward the bottom of the list, 47th on the 1997 Kids Count national composite rank, followed by South Carolina, Mississippi and Louisiana.

The states we share the bottom of the list with are all poor states,' says Levine. "Florida is not a poor state. But we've consistently been treating our children poorly."

"Our legislators, our county commissioners, our community leaders have no excuse [not] to fund kids programs." He continues. "If we were running a program in Jackson, Mississippi, or Baton Rouge, at least they can use the excuse that they can't afford better. This excuse is not valid in Florida..”

More than Money

In Coral Gables, money was important but not the main force driving rehab of the youth center.

For even in a city where the average household income hovers around $100,000, getting this multi-million dollar project off the ground required a vision. "We've built many youth centers. and we are beginning to understand why some youth centers work, why some don't work arid it's not always the lack of financial resources that's the problem," observes Reed, who says the center is the most forward looking he's encountered so far. 'The problem is to understand youth, how to connect with them, how to involve them in the planning and the delivery process." And that, clearly, happened in Coral Gables. 'The thing about it that was so exceptional was that it was so strongly supported by the city,' says Howard Gregg. chief of planning and research at Dade County's parks and recreational department, who helped Coral Gables assess its recreational and youth development needs. "They believed it [a first- class youth center] was an important statement to make."

In this case, the project took off thanks to a young mother dissatisfied with the state of her parks and a youth center she felt "didn't serve the children in the community." Pat Keon spent two years building grass-roots support around the idea of a brand new center. "When started this project, everybody thought I was crazy," she recalls.

Her reward came in 1990 when the city contracted out with a market research firm to assess the community's needs. What types of recreation activity did residents need? Did teens use the existing youth center? If not. Why? It was a year long, $30,000 effort that involved the city's young and old through focus groups and extensive interviews. "What came out of this was a vision for this center… as a broader kind of community center," says Gregg. "It would be a wonderful place for children and families to go and participate in a healthy lifestyle."

Then three years ago the city voted to take an $8.5 million loan to build new athletic fields and totally redesign the facility. That translated into an annual tab of $950,000 for 12 years. Because it's one of four communities in Florida with double-A bond ratings, Coral Gables was able to benefit from a very-low interest rate (3.75 percent) "It's the largest capital program the city has ever undertaken for youth, adults and elderly," says Don Nelson, Coral Gables' finance director.

This year, the city's bud-get for the youth center is $2.3 million out of a $71.4 million budget for the city. That compares with $1 million spent on the center six years ago. The budget covers 17 full-time youth workers and 50 coaches, who are often local college students. In addition to the programs offered by the Youth Center, Coral Gables' kids can go to the historic Venetian pool and take tennis lessons at the city's many public tennis courts.

Under the leadership of the city's parks and recreation director. Jill Gates, who came aboard five years ago after coordinating recreational activities at the 17,000-student Ohio University campus, the city has stepped up its move to privatize its recreation services. It now hires youth workers to run all of the center's programs, a move that enables Gates to save money and help the town offer better services. Contractors get 70 percent of user fees.

Membership in the youth center is $350 for a family living in Coral Gables and $595 for nonresidents. There's a separate fee to use the center's fitness center of $225 for resident families and $395 for nonresident families. About 200 of the roughly 1,000 kids aged 3 through 16 who use the center daily are from neighboring Miami.

It gets its big play, though, from people like Adam Edelstein. A Coral Gables High School sophomore and a computer wiz who builds his own machines and was in the habit of spending hours every day on the Internet. "But I got pale and was always sick," says Edelstein, who lives near the city's famed Biltmore Hotel. This year is different. He's gotten into the habit of using the youth center's top notch weight room every day. If it weren't for the center's availability, he says. "I'd be back in the habit of coming home and getting or the computer."

A friend, Jason Lappas, is busy at the center, too. He takes private karate lessons several times a week and he's into wrestling. The Coral Gables Youth Center provides a nice change, a place to meet friends and also use the weight room. It's nice and clean," says Jason, also a sophomore who lives in the posh neighborhood near the center. "In school, everything's rusted up."


Jill Gates

Director Parks and Recreation Department, Coral Gables

405 University Drive

Coral Gables, Fl 33143

(305) 460-5600

Maggy Hill

Director of Programs

Coral Gables War Memorial Youth Center

405 University Drive Coral Gables, Fl 33143

(305) 460-5600

Sgt Roger Walter

Youth Unit

Coral Gables War Memorial Youth Center

Coral Gables Police

405 University Drive

Coral Gables, Fl 33134

(305) 460-5600

Venetian Pool

2701 DeSoto Bid

Coral Gables, Fl 33134

John Fullerton

Fullerton Diaz Architects Inc.

366 Altara Ave

Coral Gables, Fl 33134

(305) 442-4200

Howard Gregg

Chief of Planning and Research

Dade County Department of Parks and Recreation

Hickman Building

275 NW Second St.

Miami, Fl 33128

(305) 755-7860

David Reed

David Reed & Associates

Eugene, Oregon

(541) 744-6914

Pat Keon

930 Andalusia Ave

Coral Gables, Fl 33134

(305) 448-5194

De Pommereau, Isabelle. "To Have and Have Not In South Florida." Youth Today, November/December 1997, p. 52 - 53.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.