I am an outsider. Or so, I was told, this could work to my advantage or against me in a place like Durant. The truth is, I don’t pay attention so very often to others’ projected perceptions that can deter work from advancing. At the end of everything, we are all uniquely human, and all we can do is try to make the world a better place in our small individual communities. This means we have to learn to work together no matter what color or credence we are.
This past year, I had the chance to witness hard lines between what’s possible and what is simply an idea falling away to engage a community in a truly grassroots manner. Citizens in Durant want to be more connected in every way. The basic question was “how can this happen?” The second question was “how do we do this?”
In some way or another, I was brought into a conversation a year ago to determine how the former Durant Middle School site could breathe life again. It is a location of tremendous potential, close to Main Street, accessible to everyone, but it’s also derelict. And it has been for many years.
Earlier this year after many community meetings, the Durant Boys and Girls Club and my organization made an offer on the building to the Durant Independent School District. I was not sure how to do this, I only know that I bring to the table, an extensive national network of people who want to see projects like this happen—for the betterment of our communities, for economic sustainability, for smart growth and for livability. The offer was accepted based on a few blurry conditions which I am still discovering—Number one is, “Do not question anything.”
When I agreed to partake in this process, I had been told that the building was environmentally sound by the leadership who would know this. I held several community meetings to begin finding the appropriate tenants that could work side-by-side with an organization as phenomenal as the Boys and Girls Club. I had contractors in to obtain quotes on every phase possible in renovating this abandoned site to a state-of-the-art facility. I have been talking to national foundations, federal departments that issue grants for projects like this, national investors and some local folks that want to help see this come to fruition. My objective in all of this has been to have the children and the greater community not only witness what is possible, but to actively engage in that process from the very first day forward.
Our plans have included renovating the oldest part of the building into a cultural venue with music events, film screenings and live theater. Another area of the building was to house entrepreneur spaces, a co-worker membership, a cafe and a physical fitness space. We have also been planning a large city farm on the site. As well, the vision was for this site to become an economically self-sufficient space. The last thing Durant needs is a place as grand in scale as this depending on hand outs to keep operations running. This is not a 21st Century reality anymore—to ask for charity constantly. We have the ability now to blend non-profit and for-profit systems to work together. At the end of the day, the bottom line is not just measured by a balanced fiscal spreadsheet. It is balanced by ownership of ideas and accessibility.
A year in, this appears to not be how the former middle school is going to turn out. It may be one more project that struggles to keep itself afloat.
I was recently informed that the building has been in an inspection with the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality for some time now. This was never disclosed by the DISD. The report is not complete yet, but I am being pressured to sign a contract before we even know what needs to be removed. Preliminary quotes from the DEQ are estimated at between $90-$120,000 for abatement. This doubles the price my organization was asked to pay to purchase the property with the Boys and Girls Club. I also don’t even know yet if this quote is accurate.
I have written this to inform all that saw what could be, that it appears a deal has been in the works for some time to remove this momentum from being realized without my knowledge. I apologize first to those who partook in active conversations and have helped behind the scenes to see this get to where it is now. I also apologize to those that were interested in investing time and financial resources to build this community center to something magnificent.
As the fate of my organization’s involvement is determined in the immediate present, I am not certain which direction the cards may fall. I do hope it is realized bigger than one more idea fallen to the sideline. And, for the record, dreams do come true.