Kroc Center explained to public

Salvation Army programs aim to help everyone excel

The Salvation Army's Kroc Center, a mega-community center with a social services component, will open in less than eight months. Many hope the $100 million investment will mean a turnaround for Harrisburg, a former mill town beleaguered in recent times by drug dealers and blight.

With the excitement, there is also confusion over what the Kroc Center is and skepticism as to how far its benefits might reach.

The West Augusta Alliance, an association representing 13 neighborhoods, played host to a discussion Monday on the Kroc Center's impact.

Augusta Commission members Matt Aitken, Joe Bowles and Jerry Brigham were invited to a panel discussion, but only Aitken attended. Kroc Center Communications Director Derek Dugan gave a presentation he says he has delivered hundreds of times. To some, the information was still brand new. Afterwards, Dugan asked audience members whether they learned anything surprising.

One woman said she had thought Kroc Center might be another homeless day shelter, like Mercy Ministries. Another woman said she thought it might be similar to the new downtown Trade, Events and Exhibition Center and had wondered why Augusta needed both.

One man said, "I didn't realize you were going to have all those programs ... and that variety. I really thought it was going to be more like a Y facility for disadvantaged people."

Dugan nodded at the misunderstandings.

"People hear Salvation Army, and they think only of the social services component of our organization," he said.

Augusta's Kroc Center was made possible though a donation by Joan Kroc, who in 2004 bequeathed $1.7 billion to build centers across the country that would offer family services, education, recreation and cultural arts in low-income urban neighborhoods.

The Kroc Center uses member dues and other private funds to operate and is separate from other Salvation Army missions, Dugan said. Thus, there will be no homeless shelter, no soup kitchen, no thrift stores and no people lingering about waiting for services.

There will be GED classes, but also foreign language, advanced literature and photography classes. There will be Department of Labor, Veterans Affairs and United Way offices, and theaters, a worship center and a fitness and aquatic center with a water slide and lazy river meandering through it.

It will be a place not just to make a beginning, but for everyone to excel, Dugan said.

The first Kroc Center opened in San Diego in 2002. The impact has been tremendous, Dugan said. The four-block area surrounding the center had a 36 percent occupancy rate in 2002. Five years later, that rate climbed to 94 percent.

"The pictures across the street during the grand opening showed massage parlors, a pool hall and tattoo parlors," Dugan said. "Now, five years later, there's a Starbucks, a Play It Again Sports, offices and condos."

Harrisburg resident Butch Palmer, who has led protests over neighborhood blight, said he hopes the Kroc Center will do well. But lasting change will come to Harrisburg only if drug dealers and users change their behaviors or move out, he said.

"If the Kroc Center is viewed as an amenity for middle class and upwardly mobile people and if they buy houses to live near it, that's what will fundamentally change the area," Palmer said.

Kroc Center construction keeps a steady pace
Nearly 4 months in, construction on Harrisburg's Kroc Center on target for 2011 opening