The future of the Cooper Street Recreation Center is a point of contention for Punta Gorda

For decades, the Cooper Street Recreation Center has been a place for kids to play and get tutored and for the public to gather for community events–often an epicenter of celebrations for the African American community. Now, for entrepreneurs like Michelle & Jeremy Gwaltney, aeroponics farmers in Punta Gorda it’s become a place to get marketing advice. The pair come to Cooper Street every month for free, one-on-one coaching with an advisor from the Small Business Development Center.

“We learned that we were in fact in a HUB Zone. And that opened up the ability for us to bid on government contracts,” said Michelle Gwaltney.

Gwaltney said this assistance has helped improve the bottom line at their business, Emerge Gardens.

“We receive referrals from working with the SBA in there. We’re involved with colleges through working with the SBA. So, there’s adult impact, there’s local business impact.”

Gwaltney said she’s become more involved with the Cooper Street Rec center just blocks away because of how it’s helping young people in her neighborhood, too.

Punta Gorda Community Leaders are at odds over future of Cooper Street Rec Center

“I actually helped start a mentoring program for young people. And that facility is a big part of the mentoring program,” said Gwaltney. “It’s been a mentoring program for children in this community for decades. And since we own a business, just a block away, we see it firsthand. That’s why I actually went to the city council meeting to speak about this.”

Gwaltney is concerned these services might be at risk based on a city council meeting in October. Several council members, like Melissa Lockhart expressed their frustration with management of the facility in that meeting

“I personally think we need new leadership in there. I think we need to start over,” said Lockhart during the council’s discussion.

Lockhart said there has been a lack of direction—and wants to see a more definitive public purpose. At that meeting, Board member Barbara Peterman says other organizations haven’t had access to the facility as they should.

“I would like to point out the current leadership is not particularly welcoming to other groups,” said Peterman.

Jaha Cummings, the president of the non-profit New Operation Cooper Street Inc who manages the facility, said both councilmembers are incorrect.

“We’ve created a very efficient operation, which we reduce expenses, like probably by 1,000%. And we partner with community partners that do not charge the community anything, and they provide the best services and they bring their own funding. So, I’d say probably for the last 20 years, it has not been run better,” said Cummings.

He said his team is meeting the needs of all ages—from career and college counseling for teens to upcoming workshops on insurance disputes to child care services. Cooper Street has subcontracted with the YMCA to provide those before and after care services through 2025. But the Center’s expansion of services hasn’t seemed to please city leaders.

The city charges New Operation Cooper Street just one dollar a year to lease the facility. City leaders complain New Cooper Street Inc. hasn’t provided sufficient detailed metrics about the programs and or enough financial documents, something the organization disputes.

The city now says its lease with New Operation Cooper Street Inc. is null and void because the document doesn’t meet state legal standards—such as not giving the city sufficient controls over subleasing. But New Operation Cooper Street’s attorney says the lease is legitimate and valid through the year 2028.

Recently, several council members suggested the YMCA might be a better manager for the facility, including councilmember Peterman who serves on a community board for the YMCA as a volunteer. She pointed out that her role with the Y has no impact on local business decisions there.

As for Gwaltney, the hydroponics farmer said she hasn’t heard a good enough reason for changing the leadership.

“It’s been a vital part of this community. And changing that would be really sad,” said Michelle Gwaltney. “So, they either need to tell the people who want their community to stay in their community. What they found is not happening, or they just need to back off and let the people own their own community center.”

For now, the city is asking New Operation Cooper Street to sign a new short-term lease. The organization is refusing to do so saying their current lease is valid. Cummings says they are willing to work with the city so they can continue to operate there for years to come.

As a matter of full disclosure, the Small Business Development Center which offers those free business counseling sessions at the Rec Center is a program at Florida Gulf Coast University. FGCU holds WGCU’s broadcast license. WGCU reached out to Mayor Lynne Matthews and City Council Members Peterman and Lockhart for comment. None responded to our request for an interview.

WGCU will continue following this story as it develops.

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