It took more than a decade, but a full-service recreation center for youth in Liberty City is finally open. Last month, the City of Miami officially unlocked the doors of the Samuel K. Johnson Youth Center at Charles Hadley Park. Now kids from one of the city's poorest neighborhoods, which has been besieged by gun violence, can find a safe haven. The facility is named for the cofounder of the Liberty City Optimist Club; it will be based at the new youth center.
The idea of a Hadley Park youth building was born in the early 2000s, when I floated it during a meeting with then-City Manager Joe Arriola. I suggested it be financed by retired Palm Beach County Police Officer Wayne Barton, who owns and operates a youth center in Boca Raton.
Arriola insisted the city could pay for the Hadley Park youth center. He budgeted $16 million for Hadley Park and $24 million for a youth center at Gibson Park in Overtown. Then-Commissioner Arthur Teele, whose district included both neighborhoods, came onboard.
But Teele committed suicide in the lobby of the Miami Herald while under criminal investigation, and Arriola returned to private life after a falling-out with then-Miami Mayor Manny Diaz. The project languished for years.
By the time the current commissioner, Keon Hardemon, took office, only Gibson Park's youth center had been completed. Meanwhile, $2.5 million of the $16 million set aside for the Hadley Park youth center had vanished, which is not uncommon in the City of Miami.
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Hardemon then proved his worth by persuading his colleagues to unanimously rebudget the missing money.
The new center is named after Sam Johnson, a county bus driver who coached Little League Baseball. In 1990, he and I formed the Liberty City Optimist Club, which is entering its 27th year with only $83,000 a year in local government assistance and many unpaid volunteers. Johnson dedicated his life to helping Liberty City's children. He spent his vacations taking kids to baseball games and tournaments around the country until his death in 2011.
Since the January 13 opening, the Hadley Park youth center has been overflowing with kids. It has a fitness room for adults. You see mom and dads working out alongside police officers and firemen. It's something Liberty City can be proud of.
Follow Luke on Twitter: @unclelukereal1.