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'KEEP OUT!'

Marcus Jordon, 13, left, and Chris Peterson, 16, find the S.L. Finley Center in Chester closed Tuesday morning. They had hoped to play a pickup basketball game in the gym.
Marcus Jordon, 13, left, and Chris Peterson, 16, find the S.L. Finley Center in Chester closed Tuesday morning. They had hoped to play a pickup basketball game in the gym.

CHESTER -- Four long teenage faces stared at a locked door Tuesday morning.

Dressed in shorts and sneakers for their daily games of pickup basketball, the teens had just learned they wouldn't be playing at the S.L. Finley Center that day.

Or today. Or tomorrow. And unless the health risks the building poses can be removed, the facility that was once the city's all-black high school will remain locked.

The Chester City Council closed the center Monday night because of concerns over mold in the building.

But some residents say the move is just the latest effort to permanently shut down the Caldwell Street building that houses the city's parks and recreation department.

The center offers young people a place to play indoor basketball without a charge, and it's occasionally rented out for private parties. Nearly 40 people also pay for memberships that allow them to use the gym and workout area. The city is talking to the Chester YMCA to see if Finley's members can temporarily use that facility.

During Monday's council meeting, Harvey Danner Jr. of Salem Environmental in Charlotte told leaders that his company had checked the building for mold in January. Inspectors found mold on both floors and in the auditorium.

Although Danner said the gym and offices weren't contaminated, other areas of the building could pose a liability to the city if someone got sick from being there.

Liability concerns

"From a liability standpoint, I'd be worried," he said. "I wouldn't let my 4-year-old grandson go in there and play in that building."

Built in the 1950s, the former high school later housed a middle school. It was vacated in 1998.

"During this period, only minor maintenance was performed," states Danner's written report. "As a result, severe damage was sustained to the roof in many places due to snowfall, rain and general aging."

Responsibility for the building's upkeep went to the city when it leased the center from the Chester County School District in the early part of this decade, said former Councilwoman Nancy Anderson. Anderson, whose term recently ended, served as chairwoman of the properties committee.

Before her term, the city spent several hundred thousand dollars renovating the gym and office, Anderson said. A year or two ago, she went to look at the building with school district officials. She said the problems were obvious. One contractor even told her that it would cost less to build a comparable facility than to repair Finley. She reported her findings to the council.

"Now, the genie's out of the bottle," she said. "It has been a problem that has gradually been coming to light."

Making the building safe would come at a high price. Just removing the mold and asbestos could cost nearly $1 million, Danner said. That doesn't include structural repairs.

Neighbors were upset by the council's decision to close the facility but were not stunned by the move.

"It's not a shock," said Makeda Baker, a community activist who lives across the street from the center. "It's not a surprise, but it does come as a jolt."

She believes certain city leaders have wanted the building closed for awhile. Race, she said, is the main reason why the building has been allowed to deteriorate.

"Because it's in the heart of the black community," she said. "Because it's in the heart of East Chester. If anybody disputes that, tell them to put their money where their mouth is."

Council members Susan Kelsey and Odell Williams, both of whom represent the area that includes the center, insist race has nothing to do with the deterioration.

Both Williams and Kelsey said that the city doesn't have the money to complete the needed repairs. Williams did say some people want to see the center shut down, although he wouldn't specify who he was talking about.

"I certainly feel there's an undercurrent," he said. "I feel like there are some people who want it closed."

Williams, who cast the lone vote to keep the center open, said the building shouldn't have been closed because the gym and offices were not contaminated areas. Williams is part of a private group that formed in recent months to restore the Finley Center. His hope is that the place where he graduated from high school will be turned over to private residents who can handle the renovations.

Kelsey also hopes private investment will help Finley.

Tuesday morning, four boys waited as though they might get inside the building where they played just a day earlier.

"It's a bad disappointment," said Kevin Worthy, 18. "I just paid for my membership not too long ago."

Thirteen-year-old Marcus Jordan looked longingly at the doors that stood between him and an empty gym. He just wanted to play.

"Two hours ain't gonna hurt nobody," he said.

Here's a look at what inspectors found when they examined the S.L. Finley Center in January:

• The smell of a "very strong must fungal odor" throughout the building.

• Roof and wall leaks caused mold to grow in certain parts of the building, including the downstairs auditorium.

• Piles of wet debris and used chairs, computers and desks fostered mold growth.

• Large amounts of plaster had fallen from the first-floor ceiling, exposing insulation that likely contains asbestos.

• The gym and main office were in acceptable condition.

-- Source: Salem Environmental

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