Emerson withdrawing from J.L. King Center


Emerson Family Centered Programs is withdrawing from the J.L. King Center due to a lack of funding. A community effort is underway to raise money to keep the center open and operating.

Emerson Family Centered Programs is withdrawing from the J.L. King Center due to a lack of funding. A community effort is underway to raise money to keep the center open and operating. Photo by: Alex Holloway/Dispatch Staff


Joan Butler

Joan Butler


Alison Buehler

Alison Buehler



Alex Holloway



After 25 years, changes are coming to the J.L. King Center as funding from Emerson's Family Centered Programs has run out.  


While the center has enough funding to remain in operation through the summer, its future is murky for August and beyond.  


The center's uncertain future is a lingering aftereffect from a more than month-long partial federal government shutdown in December and January that led to the elimination of a $150,000 annual Families First grant, administered by the Mississippi Department of Human Services through the Family Resource Center in Tupelo, that the J.L. King Center program relied on for operation. 


In late January, the program received a notice from Family Resource Center saying subgrant funds were being terminated immediately and instructing the program to cease all activities and expenditures. 


Built in 1994 at Westside (J.L. King) Park on Long Street, the center has hosted after school programs and summer camps for children, as well as adult education programs, sponsored by Starkville-Oktibbeha Consolidated School District. 


For the past four months, the J.L. King Center has remained open through additional funding Emerson Family School redirected while officials sought other funding sources. However, Joan Butler, director of the SOCSD's Family Centered Programs, said the roughly $20,000 the school set aside to keep the center going has been spent. Without any successful attempts to secure further grant funding, Butler said, Emerson is having to withdraw from the J.L. King Center by June 1. 


"It's frustrating," she said. "After 25 years, you feel a great connection with that community and the people. You have feelings of the great things that have occurred and the experience we've had over the years. We've had some really super programs over the years that we're quite proud that we know did a great service and impacted others." 


While Emerson will no longer be affiliated with the center, the same programs will remain available at Emerson Family School on Louisville Street.  




Fundraising efforts  


In the meantime, Alison Buehler, with the Homestead Education Center, is leading fundraising efforts to keep the center open for at least five more years. She said it takes about $5,000 per month -- $60,000 for a year -- to run the center with some part-time staff on-hand to oversee donations. 


So far, Buehler said, fundraising efforts have focused on getting pledges for $1,000 per year for five years from individuals, churches, civic organizations and businesses. She said funding for the summer has come through donations from Chicken Salad Chick, the Starkville Poverty Coalition and additional fundraising. 


Buehler said she's gotten $25,000 in pledges so far for the long-term operation of the center. She said she wants to get the full $60,000 pledged before actually accepting money. 


"In August, we'll have to see where we are, and say if we have to drastically reduce what's going on or close until the community decides it's worth supporting," she said.  


Buehler said fundraisers are also seeking grants to help keep the center open. However, she said grants can come and go -- as the Families First grant did -- and she'd prefer to lean on community-raised funds, if possible.  


In 2016, Buehler also led an effort to raise $28,000 to fix the center's roof. 


Anyone interested in donating funds for the center can contact Buehler at 662-694-0124 or visit www.thehomesteadcenter.org/jl-king-center. 


With Emerson withdrawing, the Starkville Board of Aldermen is set to vote to terminate a contract between the city and school district for the J.L. King Center's lease. Mayor Lynn Spruill said during Friday's board of aldermen work session the city and schools have mutually agreed to immediately terminate the contract, which will allow activities to continue in the center instead of having it sit idle through a six-month contract withdrawal window. 


Buehler said Latalla Harris, a project manager with the center, will go before the Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors and aldermen next week to ask for funding. 


She said center supporters are hoping the city and county will help pay utilities for the center, which run about $1,200 per month. 


Spruill said any requests for funding from the city need to be submitted for consideration as an outside contribution during planning for the next budget year. However, she said the city will likely roll the utilities cost back under Starkville Parks and Recreation, since the center is a parks facility. 


"We're going to transition the utilities back into Starkville Parks, and the funding they get is going to help support the utility cost as a part of that funding structure," she said.  




Center services and summer plans  


Harris said the center's adult basic education programs -- which can help people get GEDs, work on resumes, apply for jobs, take the WorkKeys exam and more -- can draw about 12 people per day. The center's after school program draws about 25 children on normal days, with up to 45 on busy days. 


Harris said the center will remain open for the summer months, beginning June 3, to host a summer camp from 9 a.m. to noon and breakfast and lunch feeding programs from 8-9:30 a.m. and noon to 2 p.m. 


"It's sad that we have to cut ties with Emerson and their family program, but we're going to try to keep this program we have at the J.L. King Center," Harris said. "This part of the community needs this. We provide free classes, free counseling and programming. It's needed on this side of town and we don't need to lose that. In spite of what we're facing, the community can come together and make this work." 


Buehler said the center is important because it provides a range of services for people who might not have transportation to reach other areas of the city. 


"When that center is open and operating, all kinds of good things happen in there," she said. "But most of all it changes the whole quality of life in that neighborhood."


Alex Holloway was formerly a reporter with The Dispatch.



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