The effort to rename the East Central Community Center after a civil rights icon has met pushback from those who believe the name should continue to reflect the neighborhood it serves.
Nearly two years after it first won a city contract to operate the community center at 500 S. Stone St., the Martin Luther King Jr. Family Outreach Center wants the city to change the building’s name to match the organization that now operates inside it.
The Spokane City Council will have the final say in whether to approve the proposal to change the East Central Community Center into the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center.
This week, the proposal failed to win the approval of the city’s Plan Commission, which reviewed it in an advisory capacity and recommended that the name remain the East Central Community Center.
The Martin Luther King Jr. Family Outreach Center, a community nonprofit that has operated for years on South Sherman Street, won a four-year funding contract to operate the community center in 2017, following a controversial selection process. It succeeded the East Central Community Organization, which had taken over operation of the facility from the city in 2012.
The East Central Community Center is one of several in the city, including the Northeast Community Center and West Central Community Center.
A survey posted online for 10 days in June found that a plurality of voters endorsed renaming the center after Martin Luther King Jr. Of the 738 votes, 49% supported renaming the center after King, compared to 32% who wished for the name to remain the same. Other options, which received far fewer votes, included Underhill, Liberty, Emmett Holmes, Peter Barrow and Lydia Sims.
But after a contentious discussion at its meeting on Wednesday, the Plan Commission decided a geographic name was a better fit.
Plan Commission Vice President Greg Francis said the Martin Luther King Jr. Family Outreach Center has “done a fantastic job” operating the community center, but he noted that their contract with the city is not in perpetuity.
“My concern is if that contract is lost at some point – which was lost with the previous operator – that we suddenly have dysfunction there,” Francis said.
While funding is only guaranteed for only four years, the organization has a 15-year lease with the city for the building.
Freda Gandy, executive director of the Martin Luther King Family Outreach Center, could not be reached for comment on Friday, but told KHQ-TV that the Plan Commission’s recommendation was a “slap in the face,” adding that it sends the message that “you’re good enough to do the work, but you may not rename it.”
The Martin Luther King Jr. Family Outreach Center was not invited to present to the commission, Gandy added.
“It was just sad for them to make a decision without even hearing from us,” Gandy said.
The Martin Luther King Family Outreach Center has the backing of Councilwoman Kate Burke, who said the new name “is going to be uplifting to them and their neighbors.”
“This is their identity, it’s been their identity,” Burke said of the Martin Luther King Jr. name.
In addition to earning the support of those who voted in the survey, Burke argued that the Martin Luther King Family Outreach Center “operates this contract and feels like they’re at their home.”
“They’re here to stay and invest in this community,” Burke said.
Burke noted that most members of the Plan Commission are white, and that the name change “for folks who have gone through oppression, could be something that’s very meaningful to them.”
“That was never part of the conversation, and I just think that was an overlooked issue,” Burke said.
Burke received backlash from members when she noted the racial makeup of the commission on Wednesday.
“The community centers are an identity thing for a neighborhood, and it makes far more sense to leave the name as it is because that identifies the community that it services,” said commission member Sylvia St. Clair. “It has absolutely nothing to do with prejudice, and I really resent that.”
Happy Watkins, a longtime pastor in the East Central neighborhood who has lived in Spokane since 1961, said “myself and many other ministers would love to see it changed to the MLK center.”
King’s name still means a lot, said Watkins, who in 2013 was one of several black leaders to accuse the East Central Community Organization of making black people feel unwelcome at the center.
“If you look around at 15th of January (on Martin Luther King Jr. Day), if you look around the 4th of April (the anniversary of King’s assassination), you’ll see the name still resonates, is praised, and helps us to fight the fight of righteousness,” Watkins said.
A Plan Commission briefing paper on the topic noted that “some citizens are concerned that the renaming may result in a center that appears to target a certain population group instead of the community as a whole.”
“That’s inherently racist in itself,” Burke countered. “MLK didn’t just stand up for black people, he stood up for people in poverty … this is not a center for black people, this is a center for community, and people who need to feel safe and get resources and have a place to go to.”
Gandy noted that the organization’s mission statement explicitly states that its services are “for all people,” and that its work embodies the life and legacy of King.
“Are we talking about the same civil rights leader who sacrificed his life and equity for all? That just doesn’t make sense to me,” Gandy said.
City Council President Ben Stuckart launched the review process in April, writing in a letter to Mayor David Condon that the name change would “honor the late civil rights icon who made significant and permanent contributions to the lives of all Americans and all residents of Spokane.”
But before he moves forward, Stuckart said Friday he wants to speak to Plan Commission members “because they went through a process and involved the public.”
Stuckart said he reviewed video of the Plan Commission meeting on Aug. 14 and said “they made reasonable arguments” on why the name should stay the same.
“I’d like to just understand what input they got and what process they went through before we do anything,” Stuckart said.
Carole Shook, a member of the Plan Commission, wrote a letter to Mayor David Condon and members of the City Council advocating that the name remain the same. Shook wrote the letter as vice president of the League of Women for Community Action, an organization that helped launch the community center 40 years ago. She recused herself from the commission’s vote.
The East Spokane Business Association also weighed in, writing in a May letter to the Plan Commission that the name should remain as is.
“The East Central Community Center sits at the very heart of the East Central District and should retain the historical commitment to the variety of people it serves,” the association wrote.
In addition to retaining its name, both Shook and the East Spokane Business Association recommended the center be added to the city’s Register of Historic Places.
But a review of the property by the city’s Historic Preservation Office noted that the building was constructed in 1978, with additions in 1981 and 1990. Typically, a building must be at least 50 years old in order to be evaluated for its historical significance, though exceptions are possible with enough reason.
“At this point, it is difficult for the Historic Preservation Office to make a determination of the exceptional significance of the East Central Community Center because no scholarly research on community centers in Spokane exists at this point in time,” wrote Historic Preservation Officer Megan Duvall in a letter to the Plan Commission.
The City Council has yet to schedule the proposal for a vote.
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