Like many single moms in the Las Vegas Trail area, Terry Stafford makes decisions that fray her nerves. Like leaving her two kids home alone while she works the night shift at the Amazon warehouse in Haslet.
She instructs her 15-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son not to leave their N. Normandale Street apartment.
“This area ain’t too great,” she says.
Before she followed a now ex-boyfriend to The Trail three years ago, her kids spent many after-school hours at a Boys & Girls Club in Arlington.
During a recent stop at the Lil’ General Food Store on S. Normandale Street, just around the bend from Las Vegas Trail, her attention was directed to an abutting vacant lot, a nearly 8-acre patchwork of dirt, rocks and weeds that’s been empty for decades.
The city plans to build $500,000 park on the land with funds from a 2018 bond program. But residents and advocates for this beleaguered neighborhood say they don’t want it.
“A park wouldn’t do no good,” Stafford said without hesitation.
Pleas for a community center in that spot — which advocates believe can serve the area’s large youth population with supervised care and recreation, and an adult population overwhelmingly living in abject poverty, and many dealing with addiction issues and mental illness — with critical life skills courses, have long fallen on deaf ears.
Still, hope for a community center can still be realized if Fort Worth city leaders are serious about their recent focus on the Las Vegas Trail area, and if residents here are serious about fighting for what they say they desperately need.
“The academic answer shows living close to parks are good for every community, and the Las Vegas Trail community could use access to more parks,” said Sean Crotty, a faculty member at TCU’s Center for Urban Studies. “Everything else in community planning says you need to ask what the community wants. If the community is saying resoundingly they need more than just outdoor space, I suspect they’re right.”
City leaders, including Mayor Betsy Price and newly elected District 3 city councilman Brian Byrd, have taken an interest in this long-neglected neighborhood of low-income apartments, high unemployment and crime, and overflowing elementary schools since a June Star-Telegram special report brought these issues out from the shadows.
In July Price and Byrd joined a bus tour through the area to process the blight for themselves.
Earlier this month, more than 400 people crammed into the Western Hills Primary School for a town hall forum with city leaders, educators, police and social agencies and activists. The need for a centralized community center was a common refrain among the speakers.
Western Hills Primary School principal Sonya Kelly addressed the need for after-school care for the more than 1,400 students enrolled at the side-by-side Primary and Elementary schools. The two schools are capable of handling only a fraction of the students in their after-school programs.
Activist Derwin Harris, founder of the faith-based Restoration Center, said it is his vision to deliver a center to the community. He said he has begun to recruit private investors, a short list for now that includes Fort Worth homebuilder Greg Davis.
Critics of the proposed park contend it provides none of the critical resources residents need, such as after-school child care, supervised nighttime and weekend options for teenagers, plus adult offerings like job training, GED certification, money management courses and other life skills training. And even potential job opportunities within the community center.
Residents and advocates will have opportunities to advise city planners during a series of 2018 bond proposal meetings being held throughout the city through October.
The next meeting is at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Meadowbrook United Methodist Church. The Las Vegas Trail community will host a meeting at 6:30 p.m. on Sept. 7 at Western Hills United Methodist Church.
Voices need to be heard
The nearly $400 million bond program, which would be the city’s largest and targets $258 million for infrastructure improvements, includes $84.6 million for proposed parks, recreation and community center improvements.
More than $30 million is earmarked for community center projects, including a 25,000-square-foot Northwest Community Center ($11.4 million), a Diamond Hill Community Center replacement ($11.5 million), plus renovations to the Northside ($5.8 million) and Sycamore ($2.7 million) community centers. Another $6.6 million is allocated for a new clubhouse at Rockwood Golf Course.
Byrd, a physician and entrepreneur turned politician, won election in May and was not in office when the bond proposals, including the $500,000 Las Vegas Trail park project, were discussed and completed. However, he said reallocating funds from other proposals in the bond program to build a community center at this point “would be tough.”
Two assistant city mangers though emphasized the projects remain proposals and are “not set in stone.” They stressed the importance for community members to attend the bond election meetings.
The Fort Worth City Council will vote on a final project list in December and is expected to call the election for May 5.
“Everything is really a proposal,” said assistant city manager Valerie Washington, who joined Price and Byrd on last month’s eye-opening bus tour. “That’s why we have these community meetings, because we want that input.”
Byrd said if a Las Vegas Trail Community Center can’t be included in the 2018 bond program, it likely will be 2021 before the next bond program. Byrd said a potential option is for the city to partner with the underutilized Westside YMCA on Calmont Avenue until a community center can be considered.
The Las Vegas Trail area already has Thorny Ridge Park located on N. Normandale Street, less than a mile from the proposed park location. Critics of the park are concerned it will become a gathering spot for drug dealers and users, and other negative influences, residents want expelled from their neighborhood.
Fort Worth Police Officer Richard Grinalds, who patrols the Las Vegas Trail area and Thorny Ridge Park, said he doesn’t encounter much trouble at the park, but he also believes the benefits of a community center greatly outweigh what a park can offer.
“If the money is there, obviously a community center would benefit the long-term needs of the community more than park,” Grinalds said. “The area has long been in need of some type of community center and I think it would be very beneficial for the residents. Community centers are supervised, it’s staffed. Parks aren’t staffed.”
A vision on the clock
Harris, the nonprofit Restoration Center founder whose office space on Williams Road in west Fort Worth includes a food pantry and a clothes closet for adults and children, started his ministry efforts a decade ago in a Las Vegas Trail apartment complex.
He and Davis, the homebuilder who is one of six members on Restoration Center’s board of directors, have met with Byrd to discuss building what Harris calls a multipurpose family resource center.
Their vision is a 15,000- to 20,000-square foot building similar to that of Hope Farm, with a gymnasium and rooms for teaching youth and adult courses, plus outdoor basketball courts and fields for football and soccer. They believe it can be constructed for less than the Northwest Community Center and that timing is ripe to raise the money.
That vision, however, is now on the clock with the proposed park set for land that sat empty all these years.
“I want to call to action the spiritual giants in this community ... those of us who call ourselves God-fearing people,” said Harris, who noted while his organization is faith-based, a community center would be non-denominational. “We have enough money to do something like this where we can do it and do it on the terms we feel it needs to be done.
“When we put parks in these areas, those parks don’t turn out to be all they are intended to be,” Harris said. “I know it’s to beautify the community, but this community is hurting real bad, and it needs an entity that breaths life into the community.”
A private endeavor comes with complications.
The city of Fort Worth purchased the 7.91-acre lot last year from Normandale LLC, for $910,000. Harris is hopeful the city would agree to a sweetheart deal, something like a $1 a year lease, that city councils have struck elsewhere.
“You talk about can we perform or can we not perform,” Davis said in reference to raising funds. “The exposure that Las Vegas Trail has had in the past however many months, it has opened a door. (Harris has) been fielding calls right and left. Here’s the bottom line: All the people that were at that (town hall) meeting were people who want something done. What I can do is continue to raise the support. The dynamics, in my opinion, have changed with this exposure.”
Las Vegas Trail needs a community center. At the moment, plans call for a park.
Jeff Caplan is a projects and enterprise reporter for the Star-Telegram. Reach him at 817-390-7705 or on Twitter @Jeff_Caplan