By Justin Boron
Clayton County officials broke ground Thursday evening on a long-awaited recreation center.
The shovels dug into the dirt almost two years after county voters approved a special one-cent sales tax that will raise $200 million for road transportation improvement and $40 million for recreation centers. The recreation portion was seen as a pivotal component in getting the tax passed, especially since voters rejected the tax when it included only the roads portion.
North Clayton High School students, Porsche Artis, 17, of Riverdale and Crystal Louis, 17, said the new center would provide a valuable outlet for young people and their families.
“It's somewhere I can bring my younger siblings and friends,” Artis said.
County Commission Vice Chairwoman Virginia Gray, in whose district the new center will be built, was ecstatic at the ceremony, complete with the North Clayton High School marching band, dance team, and dozens of dignitaries, elected officials, and county department heads.
“This is the Clayton County that I am used to,” she said. “This is the spirit that keeps me working so hard.”
Officials acknowledged that the road leading up to the ground breaking was a difficult one but prided the headway that has been made.
“It seems like forever since we started on this journey, and through agony, conflict, and pain we've come,” said County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell.
At the very least, it has been a controversial road, with intense public pressure to speed up the progress on the recreation program. Critics also raised questions about the county's obligation to build all six of the centers listed in literature for the program.
The outcry prompted the county commission to slow the roads portion of the program and devote more money and resources to the centers.
Two teenage shootings deaths in April galvanized the community further.
Critics are still at odds with a plan to build the six centers, which in addition to four other centers, includes a senior and the aquatic center in Jonesboro.
Local leaders like Dexter Matthews, president of the Clayton County NAACP, say those two projects shouldn't count.
But Thursday even one of the staunchest critics of the board's progress on the centers said he was pleased.
“It's been a long, hard struggle so we've got to take what we can get,” said Bobby Simmons, a member of the Clayton County NAACP, which has vigorously fought for the centers' expeditious completion. “We're happy to see the progress and yes, we want to accentuate the positive.”