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Marshall White Center, once an historic investment in Ogden’s marginalized neighborhoods, faces ‘demolition by neglect’

The Marshall White Center is one of the only public spaces in the state named after a Black Utahn, but its fate remains unclear.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Justice Conrad gets some pointers from boxing coach Ron Brown, during the Intro to Boxing class, at the Marshall White Center, in Ogden, on Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021.

Ogden has worked for years to transform its reputation from a rough-and-tumble town into a recreation magnet. But the city’s only public recreation center is forcing a reckoning with its past.

Marshall White was a World War II veteran, youth mentor and Ogden police officer who was killed in the line of duty in 1963. A Black man who died in the heat of the U.S. civil rights movement, White became an important symbol for the community and the city built and dedicated a recreation center in his name five years later. It sits at the corner of 28th Street and Lincoln Avenue, in the heart of a historically Black and Latino community.

Over the past five decades, it’s become a place where countless children learned to swim, paint and play ball. Senior citizens have made new friends there, chatting over dominoes, sharing lunch and paddling around the pool. The center hosts art classes and boxing matches for residents of all ages, and it serves as a reminder of a time when the city made a meaningful investment in an otherwise marginalized neighborhood.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kambron Carlson teaches Hugh, Zach and Gwen to make pumpkin bars, in the Junior Chef Cooking Class at the Marshall White Center, in Ogden, on Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021

But the Marshall White Center has lately become a symbol of a community that continues to feel left behind. Its 50-year-old walls are cracking. The roof has persistent leaks. The pool, shuttered in 2018, is too busted to fix. The yoga studio is crammed into a basement storage room, right next to a blaring boiler on its last leg, in a space not exactly conducive to finding one’s zen.

“This is, in my opinion, demolition by neglect,” said Angel Castillo, a community activist and member of the Ogden NAACP’s executive committee.

The effort to save the still-beloved center came to a head last month, after City Council members issued messages seemingly dismissive of the community’s effort to gather feedback about the center’s future. City officials called a survey of the center’s patrons — which they had commissioned — overly focused on recreation, saying it failed to explore other directions for the center, like a child care center, health clinic or “incubator kitchens.”

That spurred fears that the real aim is to move the city’s aquatic and athletic assets to a wealthier (and whiter) neighborhood, leaving the Marshall White Center a shell of itself.

“They really didn’t want to get anything done for the center,” said Ron White, the son of Marshall White and chair of the advisory committee for the center, formed last year by the City Council. “They just wanted to move it and not improve it.”

With once-in-a-generation public investments on the horizon, through funds like the federal American Rescue Plan Act, city residents see an opportunity to revive and rebuild Marshall White Center as a state-of-the art recreation center and renewed community resource.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ronald White, the son of Marshall White, looks through a scrap book with the history of the Marshall White Center, in Ogden, on Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021.

But they also see that window rapidly closing, as they say city officials holding the purse strings and approval power are delaying, equivocating and pointing fingers.

“To me, someone is just playing games here,” said City Council member Luis Lopez, who has advocated for the center since running for office in 2015.

Lopez said he feels outnumbered on the council. “It’s been too long,” he said. “Our community needs a rec center, our community deserves a good rec center, and it feels like people shouldn’t have to beg for it.”

The red line

The Marshall White Center is the only public building in Utah named after a Black man, according to the NAACP.

The Utah Historical Society all but confirmed that fact — the only other government-owned space their researchers could find named after a Black Utahn is Salt Lake City’s Richmond Park, dedicated in 1984 to the memory of Mignon Barker Richmond, a community organizer and the first African American woman to graduate from a Utah college. There’s also a Salt Lake City school that was renamed in 2018 to honor Mary W. Jackson, the first Black woman engineer to work at NASA, instead of Andrew Jackson.

This is despite the rich history of Black Americans in the state. Freed slaves were among the religious pioneers who traveled to and settled Utah territory. After emancipation, railroad magnates recruited Black workers to build up the transcontinental railroad. The railroad, in turn, brought Black cultural pioneers to downtown Ogden, cultivating a legendary jazz and club scene.

“Our goal should be making [the Marshall White Center] a showcase of Ogden, and not a footnote to be relegated to second-class status,” said Betty Sawyer, president of the Ogden NAACP chapter.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Young girls participate in a soccer class, in the gym at the Marshall White Center, in Ogden, on Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021.

But the neighborhood is accustomed to feeling swept aside.

A block from Ogden’s Marshall White Center lies Washington Boulevard, long considered the city’s redline, blocking Black and ethnic minority communities from economic opportunity and sequestering them away from affluent white neighborhoods.

The street represented a “Berlin Wall” leaving Black residents in “shacks,” the then-president of Ogden NAACP told Weber State College students in January 1968.

A few months after that speech, in April, Dr. Martin Luther King would be assassinated and President Lyndon Johnson would sign the federal Fair Housing Act into law. And in October of that year, the Marshall White Center would open its doors.

A historical photo from the Wall Avenue Community Recreation Center, which was the first community center of its kind in Ogden. Photo courtesy of the Marshall White Center.

It’s now illegal for banks and landlords to consider race and the demographic fabric of a neighborhood when making decisions about to whom they grant mortgages or approve leases.

But Jenny Gnagey, a Weber State University professor who studies the city’s history of redlining, said placing Ogden’s Marshall White Center in a marginalized area has far from solved the city’s racial and class problems.

“The historic disinvestment in that neighborhood has led it to being a place where the city feels a recreation center is not viable,” almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy, Gnagey said. “I wouldn’t say redlining is gone ... I’d say what’s going on with Marshall White Center is [another] form of redlining.”

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Ogden, like many cities, is still feeling the fallout from decades-long discrimination, Gnagey added. White, wealthy residents dominate the city’s east bench, while the Marshall White neighborhood persists as low-income, according to U.S. Census data.

Going downhill

After opening for business 50 years ago, the 37,000-square-foot Marshall White Center immediately became popular. Newspaper articles at the time touted its trampoline equipment, cooking courses, women’s volleyball leagues and elementary-age basketball teams. Groups of up to 50 junior high students used the pool four times a day. A crowd of 250 turned out for a boxing tournament.

Indeed, Ogden became semi-famous for its boxing program and the young athletes it produced, under the direction of coaches like Bill Lyons.

“They worked with our local Black and brown youth in that area … and had a great ability to communicate with those youth and bring the best out,” Ronald White said.

The 1970s and 1980s represented the “heyday” of the center, Ronald White said.

(Image courtesy of Marshall White Center) Coach Bill Lyons played a major role in the Marshall White Center's "hey-day" and boxing culture. The center's gym was later dedicated to the coach informally as the "Lyon's den."

But “in the ‘90s things started to change and go downhill,” he said, starting with a leaky roof, followed by decades of deferred maintenance.

While City Council members and the city administration have had on-and-off conversations about what to do with the Marshall White Center for years, the effort seemed to gain momentum in 2019. The city fixed the leaking roof. It built new basketball and soccer courts.

Then, in April 2020, the council held a work session to discuss the center’s future. But most of the discussion focused on the possibility of building a new recreation center in a different neighborhood, run by the YMCA.

The YMCA’s model relies on a certain threshold of members who can pay the full price for recreation center access.

The Marshall White Center’s downtown location wouldn’t draw enough of those patrons, a YMCA representative said, because downtown Ogden is “more of a destination, not part of most people’s daily lives.”

YMCA’s studies found the best location would be near Ogden High School, which is on the city’s more affluent east bench.

The findings confounded Councilman Lopez, the only non-white member of a council representing a city that is one-third Latino and 2% Black. He pointed out that Marshall White’s programs are at capacity and can’t keep up with current demand.

“Plain and simple,” a city staffer explained to Lopez at the meeting, according to a video recording, “there are members of the community who will not utilize that location.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Justice Conrad gets instructions from boxing coach Ron Brown, during the Intro to Boxing class, at the Marshall White Center, in Ogden, on Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021.

Indoor recreation is a personal issue for Lopez, however, who immigrated from Mexico at age 19.

“My family ... we were poor,” Lopez told The Salt Lake Tribune. “We couldn’t afford to go skiing, we couldn’t afford a private membership at a gym. We couldn’t afford any of those things.”

Instead, Lopez took his young children to an indoor playground at the Ogden mall, or to the McDonald’s play area, when it was too cold to recreate outside.

These days, Lopez takes his family to public recreation centers and pools in neighboring cities, like Roy, North Ogden and Clearfield. He said he runs into other families from Ogden all the time.

“The argument [city leadership] is trying to make is the data shows not enough people use Marshall White, and that’s why we should consider moving it somewhere else,” Lopez said. “[But] a lot of people don’t want to use the center because it’s old. It’s falling apart.”

City leadership responds

Last year, amid the chaos of the pandemic, the City Council formed the advisory committee that Ronald White leads to explore future plans for the center. The council dedicated $300,000 to the planning effort. It hired a consultant to inspect the center, which revealed danger in the case of an earthquake, restrooms that are not up to code and lack of accessibility for disabled patrons.

(The city had paid for a similar study in 2004 that found similar issues, although apparently nothing was done. But a year later, the city did issue multimillion dollar bonds to build the Salomon Center, which is technically a city-owned recreation center, but it’s operated by for-profit business like EōS Fitness, Fat Cats and Flowrider Utah.)

The same consultant, VCBO, helped the advisory committee survey the community about what changes residents want to see at the Marshall White Center. Ronald White shared the survey findings with the City Council and Mayor Mike Caldwell in June of this year, recommending a new swimming pool with a splash pad, two new gyms and fitness studios, as well as spaces for seniors and people with autism, areas for large community events and classrooms.

A rendering shows one option for a new recreation facility at Ogden's Marshall White Center, taken from a report the center's advisory committee shared with the City Council.

But on Sept. 30, council chair Bart Blair issued a letter back to the committee.

“The Council feels the sole focus on the future use as a recreation center did not meet the Council’s expectations or direction,” Blair wrote, adding that the survey focused “primarily on recreational amenities,” even though the survey also asked about art rooms, cooking spaces, computer classes, health services and more.

Some council members further vented their frustrations about the survey’s recreation focus at a work session on Nov. 9. That prompted hours-long public comment from city residents worried the Marshall White Center was getting both shafted and set up to fail.

“This is an administration that pulls together committees, makes people donate hundreds of hours of time to make recommendations, then ignores it,” Castillo said.

Blair suggested in his letter the advisory committee conduct a second survey, but in an interview with The Tribune, he said he no longer feels that’s necessary.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ronald White, the son of Marshall White, in front of The Marshall White Center, in Ogden, on Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021.

“We have what we need,” Blair said. “We’ll have to take that information and see where it leads us now.”

The council chair also said he didn’t believe the YMCA’s analysis — which doubted enough Ogden residents would visit a revamped recreation center in the Marshall White neighborhood — was necessarily accurate, either. That discussion, in April 2020, “was a lifetime ago,” he said.

“The city has much more development going on, there’s a lot more action near and around where the Marshall White Center is,” Blair said. “There are 600 apartments going up right there, which totally changes that dynamic.”

The Council plans to invest $5 million fixing up the Marshall White Center over the next five years. City officials estimate a new recreation center will have a price tag of $30 million and require some sort of voter-approved bond.

But neither Blair nor Mayor Caldwell would say whether they felt the Marshall White neighborhood was the right place for a new, revamped recreation center.

“Where ever it goes, it’s going to be there for many, many decades,” Caldwell told The Tribune. “It’s important for us to make the best decision, because it’s citywide. All 90,000 Ogden city residents will be paying for it.”

Correction, 12:20 p.m., Nov. 1: This story has been updated to correct Betty Sawyer’s name.

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