From dance lessons as a child to playing cards with adult friends, Willa Johnson has fond memories under the roof of the recently demolished Douglass Community Center.
Today, a new recreation center named for the longtime public servant nears completion in Douglass Park, which runs from NE 10 to NE 4 just west of Interstate 35. Before it opens later this year, the community established an endowment fund of over $100,000 for the Willa D. Johnson Recreation Center.
The fund was the brainchild of Ward 7 councilor Nikki Nice and will help families who cannot afford activities at the leisure centre, which could open as early as this fall. So far, $51,830 has been raised for the fund, plus $50,000 in matching donation from the Oklahoma City Community Foundation.
James Johnson, chairman of the endowment fund committee, said the recreation center would be a game-changer for northeast Oklahoma City. It replaces the old centre, which has been converted from its original use as a fairground building built in 1926.
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“This new facility was designed, orchestrated and its centerpiece was a recreation center,” said James Johnson. “So it’s going to better meet the needs of the community.”
Willa Johnson, 83, was the first black woman elected to the Oklahoma City Council in 1993 and served Ward 7 until 2007. She spent another decade as Oklahoma County Commissioner, retiring in 2017.
During his years in office, Johnson was involved in the reopening of the James E. Stewart golf course and improvements to Edwards Park, and lobbied for a new recreation center in Douglass Park. When she finally learned it was happening, she said, “I couldn’t believe it.”
She looks forward to its opening, knowing that no one will be turned away for financial reasons.
“It just makes me smile and makes my heart beat a little harder and longer, knowing that something this positive in a city this size…would happen because of something I did,” said Johnson said.
The ‘state-of-the-art’ center has experienced several construction delays
Construction is expected to be completed in late summer or early fall, after delays caused by a number of reasons.
One of the biggest hurdles to completing the project – construction of which began in November 2020 – was caused by the bankruptcy of the chosen steel supplier. The process of selecting a new supplier was long, but the last steel arrived in mid-January, said Robert Culverhouse, Parks public information manager.
Other obstacles to completion were weather, the pandemic and things beyond the city’s control, he added.
“It’s state-of-the-art. I don’t think any other recreation center we’ve had is as nice or as enjoyable,” Culverhouse said.
As the city accepted a lower-than-expected build bid, some extras were added, including a teaching kitchen and fitness area, and the pool slide was widened, Culverhouse said.
Visitors to the center can also take advantage of its indoor swimming pool – with three competition lanes, a paddling pool and a lazy river – two basketball courts and walking/jogging tracks. Classrooms and offices as well as space for after-school programs will also be available.
“It’s all about opportunity. And that’s what the center will bring,” Nice said. “And I’m excited…just to enjoy the kids, and see the smiling faces, and just the excitement of things that they probably never experienced or had to travel miles to receive.”
Donations to the endowment are a ‘gift forever’
The nearly 34,000 square foot center, a $12 million project, was funded by the $967 million bond package included in the 2017 Better Streets, Safer City projects.
The center will receive 5% of the market value of its endowment fund each October, and any interest earned beyond that will be reinvested. Jennifer Meckling, director of the foundation’s Charitable Organization Endowment program, said the purpose of the fund was to “subsidize access to the facility.”
The exact form of this will be determined once the city determines the fee that will be charged. A similar endowment fund was established under MAPS 4 to pay dues for low-income seniors using MAPS 3 and 4 seniors’ centres.
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Meckling said the fund has had “broad community support” and donations are still welcome even though the $50,000 goal has been reached.
“These gifts will continue to be welcome forever, as this money is going into this investment fund and it will continue to grow,” Meckling said.
Johnson hoped to pay off with a new recreation center
Johnson, a 1957 graduate of Frederick A. Douglass High School, said she had long hoped for a new recreation center for children and families in her home community.
“I’m just happy that a dream has come true,” Johnson said.
The OKC City Council passed a resolution naming the center for Johnson in December 2019.
“I bet you never thought you’d see me humbled enough to cry,” she told council members at the meeting. “There is no greater honor, for anyone, anywhere.”
New center part of a series of community improvements
Larry D. Naff, 68, moved to the Edwards Addition neighborhood in 1962. There he attended Edwards Elementary from where he could see Douglass Park.
The first time he went to the old Douglass Community Center when he was 7, he said he “was impressed”. The new center, without opening, has already “exceeded” expectations, Naff said.
“I have a lot of love for this community, really,” Naff said. “Douglass Center is close to my heart…because I know what it did for me as a kid, how it helped my developmental process. If I had what they’re going to have now? I would be even more improved.”
A community need that the new center will fill, Naff said, is a place where people of all ages can find something for themselves. In contrast, the Douglass Center catered primarily to young people.
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Culverhouse said it was the first new multi-generational recreation center built by the Parks Department in more than 40 years.
The modernized recreation center is in line with other community improvements, which the Nice city councilor said have long been ignored by the city.
TC Brown, general manager of the James E. Stewart Golf Course, said he expects increased recreation center traffic to benefit the area, including the 9-hole course which features a full-service restaurant.
“In any community, when you have improvements, it’s good for everyone involved,” Brown said. “It’s good for the people who live in this neighborhood, it’s good for business.”
Brown said another addition he looks forward to is the opening of the golf course’s new clubhouse on April 8.