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Why now may be time to return Butler Gym to its former glory
Officials agree it will take a lot of money to make that happen
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Calls to restore the old Butler Gym on Athens St. are growing as community engagement with local government increases.

The old Butler Gym in Gainesville has long stood as a symbolic testament to the traditions and history of the city’s predominantly African-American southside neighborhoods.

It was erected as part of the former high school for black students in the days of segregation.

But the building’s practical use, or rather lack thereof, now threatens to stain a once-great legacy.  

Closed for more than a decade, the abandonment is clear from within and without.

“It’s sad to see what happens when such a critical part of the community leaves,” said Ashley Bell, a former Hall County commissioner who now serves as a regional administrator for the U.S. Small Business Administration.

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Calls to restore the old Butler Gym on Athens St. are growing as community engagement with local government increases.

Broken windows divert eyes from the sheer scale of the building’s wear as nature strips its color and its façade. A porous roof leaves pools of stagnant water on the basketball court inside.

“It’s a bit embarrassing,” said Emory Turner, a 1966 graduate of E.E. Butler High.

The longtime community activist, who has served on several public boards and ran for a city council seat in 2015, said now is the time to reclaim the gym’s pride.  

“It was the place to be,” Turner said, when during the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s it served as hub for youth recreation and community engagement.

Calls to restore the gym have intensified as progress is being made on developing a park on the backside of the property where the gym is located (and adjacent to the county public health department).  

The $1.35 million project could be open to the public by October 2019, but its contingent on Hall County receiving more than $500,000 in federal grant funding to construct a playground, pavilion, basketball court, walking trails, exercise stations, spray pool, picnic area, parking, restrooms, lighting, signs and utilities.

Renovations to Butler Gym have been stymied for years without grant awards or other sources of funding.

Last year, however, county officials neared a lease and use agreement with Ninth District Opportunity Inc., which owns the Butler Gym. But with few financial resources shored up, unease grew about who would be responsible for maintenance and other costs going forward.

“It’s definitely something I’d like to try again,” said Hall Commissioner Jeff Stowe, whose district includes the Butler Gym site.

Ninth District, which provides educational, housing and financial support for low-income families, operates the Head Start program for early-age learners out of the old Butler schoolhouse.

Patsy Thomas, executive director, said she remains open and excited about the prospect of restoring Butler Gym for these students and those to come.

“It was going to be a wonderful partnership,” she said of the deal that broke down last year. “We would love to be able to redo the gym. It would be wonderful for the community.”  

Thomas said in addition to being available for public use, the Butler Gym could serve the health department and Head Start families by providing office and community space in the building.

Money is no small matter, however, and Stowe said it will take more than $1 million to renovate the gym.

“It’s going to take quite a bit of money to stop even the deterioration that’s happening now,” Stowe said, adding that asbestos removal is also needed, while the boiler heating system would need to be replaced, as well. “There’s just no funds available right now.”

Thomas said Ninth District is also limited financially, but that grants and other funding avenues are possible in the future.

The best option may be special purpose local option sales tax revenue, a one-penny sales tax collected to fund construction projects that serve the public, county officials and community activists said.

But a new round of SPLOST funding, subject to voter approval, is several years away and would push the renovations beyond 2020. Some of this revenue would also have to be specifically earmarked for the gym’s restoration.

For Bell, who recalls his own youth playing basketball in Butler Gym, the impact of resurrecting it is hard to measure but a safe bet.

“An investment in Butler would be an investment in the next generation,” he said. 

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