Growing up in the Stonegate Village section of south Reston, Charles Pullen remembers having to sneak out the backdoor of his home, past the watchful eyes of his mother, to come out to show his skills on the basketball court at the nearby Southgate recreation area.
During his youth, Pullen's Stonegate Village neighborhood was were ravaged by drug sales and gang fights. “My mom was too scared to let me out, she said it was just too dangerous,” said Pullen, a former South Lakes High School basketball player. “There was always a black shadow over my neighborhood.”
On Saturday morning, Pullen, a special education teacher at Langston Hughes Middle School, returned to the basketball courts of his youth and to the neighborhood where he grew up to help in the official groundbreaking for the future Southgate Community Center.
Pullen, who will help run the center once it opens, was joined court side with a host of local community leaders and area politicians for the Oct. 11 community-wide celebration that organizers and residents alike hope will help “build a foundation for the future” while revitalizing a neighborhood that has recently shown signs of slipping back to an era marked by intermittent violence and drug abuse.
In a little more than 18 months, a new generation of Reston youth along with adults and seniors will roam the grounds and halls of the yet-to-be-built Southgate Community Center at 12125 Pinecrest Road. Looking out at the dozens of children in attendance on Saturday, Pullen reminded the crowd about the importance of the future center and said that Saturday’s event almost brought tears to his eyes. “It’s for you guys. It’s for the kids,” he said. “Get yourself off the streets.”
WHILE CONSTRUCTION IS set to begin next week and the doors are not scheduled to be open until the spring of 2005, County officials have already begun the process of planning programming at the new center, officials said. A community center advisory council, like similar ones in operation elsewhere in the county, is currently being organized because the county wants to make sure that the community decides what it does, and does not, want to program at the center. “There will be a cross-section of the community on the council,” Supervisor Cathy Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill) said. “All the voices of the community will have a seat at the table.”
The advisory council, charged with defining the programmatic future of the center, will be made up of residents representing a host of different local constituencies including: youth groups, senior citizens, homeowners associations, community-based organizations, faith-based communities, local non-profits and sports groups.
“This is a very exciting day for the community and I know that they are going to love this center,” said Pat McClenic, of Fairfax County's Department of Community and Recreation Services. “It is the community, from its youth to its senior citizens, that will decide what it wants at its center and in this new building. Once built this center will be a focal point for the entire Reston community.”
Katherine Hanley, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, applauded the various partnerships that made Saturday’s groundbreaking possible and the numerous constituencies that will help operate the center once it is up and running. “It does take a village to raise a child,” Hanley said. “This is about the future and the development of a place for safe and supervised activities for our children.”
FOR GAIL KOHN, deputy director of the county’s Department of Housing and Community Development, Saturday’s mostly ceremonial event was an important step in on ongoing process. “It has been a long time coming,” she said, before the festivities. “Now, we are moving to another phase of this extremely important project.”
Saturday’s event was a welcome break from the campaign season for Hudgins. The Southgate Center is one of the centerpieces of Hudgins re-election bid and, like Kohn, the Hunter Mill supervisor was happy to mark the latest milestone in what was once dubbed, “Operation Southgate.”
Before the event, Hudgins reminisced about coming to tutor school children in Stonegate Village about 20 years ago. “This was a vibrant place back then,” she said. “The new Southgate Center will continue to help the community revitalize itself. I am confident that this will pull the entire community together.”
U.S. Rep. Jim Moran (D-8th) praised Pullen, and others like him, for dedicating himself to bettering his community. “You are the future. This is a guy who grew up here and he is staying here to make it better. That’s great,” he said. “You have a passion about your community. Southgate is a story about community and it really defines what Reston is all about … People came together over the direction of their community. With that vote, Reston remained true to its original vision and it makes the Reston experience an even better experience.”
LAST YEAR, RA MEMBERS, who were effectively the owners of the property on which the Southgate Neighborhood Center will be built, voted by an overwhelming margin — 96 percent — to lease the property to Fairfax County for 99 years.
On Saturday, Pullen thanked RA members for their support in last year’s referendum. Pullen said he was opposed to the referendum idea when it was first floated because, he said, he didn’t think the entire Reston community would rally around a recreation center in South Reston. “I was very doubtful that it would pass,” Pullen said.
But Pullen wasn’t alone. Moran said that there had been many skeptics who doubted RA could generate enough interest in the project to inspire the required 40 percent of the RA electorate to cast a vote. “Some said it couldn’t happen, but 96 percent of vote proved them wrong. Nice going Suzi,” Moran said, in a nod to Susan Jones, the RA president who spearheaded the get-out-the-vote drive last year.
Moran wasn’t alone in his praise of Jones and RA’s successful referendum. “I don’t know anything that has ever gotten 96 percent of the vote, at least not in the free world,” quipped Hanley.
For her part, Jones, who praised Hudgins’ leadership role, said Saturday’s event was the “culmination of a dream” and “showed us how partnerships can work.”
Fairfax County took possession of the property, just off Glade Drive, earlier this summer. In exchange for the land, the county will fund the design and construction of the multi-use recreation center at an estimated cost of about $2.3 million. The dilapidated meeting room will also be replaced by a 7,733 square foot multi-purpose facility complete with gymnasium, meeting rooms, kitchen and office space. The Southgate Neighborhood Recreation Area also includes three outdoor basketball courts, one tennis court and a 25-space parking lot, all of which will remain, officials have said.
First built in 1974, the original Southgate site was one of the first multi-purpose recreational facilities in Reston. Seven years ago, however, the then 1,200 square foot center and its centerpiece community swimming pool were shuttered. A 1995 survey of RA members found that the Southgate pool was the most underutilized community pool in Reston. In 1997, it was closed.