A plan to restore the vacant building has been years in the making, says project leader Danielle Ingves, but more community investment is needed to bring it online by spring.
By Matt Skoufalos
Years ago, the Audubon Recreation Center was used as a haunted house for Halloween, its cinderblock walls coated with blacklight-activated laundry detergent, stray beams of light infiltrating cracks in its boarded-up windows.
On a sunny Saturday morning in May, there is little to distinguish its present condition from that ad hoc use.
Nonetheless, a handful of citizens, Mayor John J. Ward among them, are venturing into its darkened halls to swing sledgehammers and retrieve a dumpster’s worth of garbage from within.
Fueled by coffee, donuts, and the encouragement of 17-year Audubon resident Danielle Ingves, they are the willing hands of an ongoing project to restore the dilapidated center to usable condition for a new generation of families.
‘It just became my baby’
Throughout her Philadelphia childhood, Ingves, a mother to eight- and 11-year-old daughters, remembers how her own participation in extracurricular activities was limited by access to public transit.
In the small, walkable South Jersey community of Audubon, however, the building at Washington Terrace and Hampshire Road is an easily accessible—if untapped—resource.
Ingves said she is motivated both by a desire to provide a safe and engaging atmosphere for children as well as by “all the great memories” of what the community center meant to residents in years prior.
“That space has so much potential,” Ingves said. “I love the educational part of it. I love the physical part of it. There’s a good amount of space in there where we could have several things going on at one time.”
“I wanted to bring something back to this town, and here it was, sitting right there,” she said. “It just became my baby.”
But before the site can be brought online, Ingves has two significant hurdles to overcome: creating a plan to demonstrate that the center can operate independently, and then raising the funds to restore the building.
Part of the latter is complicated by the fact that she is still collecting estimates for the work while coming to terms with the extent of 20 years worth of deterioration.
“If we were able to just walk in and start a business, we’d be so far ahead,” she said. “The problem is the construction. We can do a small lease with the town once we get up and running. It’s a big undertaking, but everyone’s willing to help.”
“The shed, which holds the electricity, needs a whole new roof,” Ingves said. “The main building roof and siding need to be patched. PSE&G won’t turn [the electricity]on until we have the building sealed off. The water lines have been cut. Windows and doors need to be replaced.
“I can’t believe the damage that’s been done to that facility since it’s been closed,” she said.
Getting public buy-in
Ingves has been collecting donations for the project, a process that was kickstarted by a $1,000 gift from New Jersey American Water, a likely candidate to buy the borough municipal sewer system.
Another $100 or so was sourced locally just from Merchant’s Deli and Splitting Hairs Hair Design putting collection buckets on their sidewalks in the Merchant Street business district.
Ingves has considered starting wish lists at home-improvement stores to make it easier for benefactors to purchase needed supplies.
She’s also formed a nonprofit organization with its own board of directors to formally push the project ahead; but there is much more work to be done to hit an opening-day target in spring 2016. Her priorities are not only getting the building together, but doing it sustainably.
“Every time it’s opened in the past, it’s failed,” Ingves said. “I want to be very smart about how we do it. Our ultimate goal is to see how it can be for the whole community. We need to raise enough funds; it can’t be volunteer [only]or it will all fall apart.”
Ward remembers fondly the heyday of the community center of his childhood, where basketball and hockey leagues that ran “almost all year long.”
Today, however, the space is unused, and with the borough government “scratching for every dollar,” he said it is difficult to justify using public funds to restore the property.
“It really does take a volunteer effort, and once people see that people are passionate about something, they’ll open more doors,” the mayor said. “It’s a huge part of community that we’re missing.”
Ward said the project is “an opportunity” for community investment in the family-forward borough. He believes that once more of the town sees how much effort the volunteers have put into restoring the center, greater buy-in will follow.
“The issue today that we face is most people volunteer around their children,” Ward said. “It’s two-parent, working families now, and people have less time that they can donate to their community. When they do volunteer, it’s around the arts and the band and music, or youth sports.
“I think once we start [defining]what [the center] will be, we’ll see more people wanting to get involved, and it’ll open doors for us as a group.”
Once it’s up and running, Ingves thinks the center can play host to a combination of activities run by both Audubon recreational groups and outside organizations like the YMCA and Red Cross, whose babysitting and community programs she said are well organized. She also believes that the building could become a rental space for private parties and local clubs if properly outfitted.
“I would love it to be a meeting room for the committees in town to keep that building in use in the evening,” she said; “vending machines, ping-pong tables, movie nights, ice cream socials—anything that we could do to bring the community together.”
If you would like to support the Audubon Recreation Center project, contact Ingves at firstname.lastname@example.org, or send a contribution to: Audubon Recreation Center, PO Box 204, Audubon, NJ 08106.