City considers handing off control of S.L. Finley Center

CHESTER -- Chester leaders hope the city can sever its ties to the S.L. Finley Center.

The city is trying to end its lease on the roughly 50-year-old building that was once Chester's all-black high school. The center most recently housed the city's recreation department, but city leaders closed Finley's doors in June because of concerns about mold in the building.

Since then, officials have considered fumigating the facility. The city even held a back-to-school fundraiser, selling fish sandwiches and T-shirts to raise money to restore the center that consumed several hundred thousand dollars of city money in renovations.

Now, officials say, the best move is to let go of the building -- which is leased from the Chester County school district -- because the city just can't afford the repairs.

School district officials met with some city and community leaders recently to discuss the matter, said Gaither Bumgardner, the school district's executive director of general services. Although no decision has been made, the Chester County school board will study the options discussed at the meeting.

One proposal is that the district allow the S.L. Finley Restoration Association to take control of the building.

"I'm sure that they're not gonna just sit there with it and say, 'We ain't gonna clean it up. We ain't gonna restore it. We ain't gonna let nobody else have it,'" said City Councilman Odell Williams, who serves as chairman of the nonprofit association. "They're gonna either have to restore it, tear it down or fix it. Or let somebody else do it."

The association's members know the cost won't be cheap.

"It's gonna take a whole lot (of money)," Williams said. "But we have a whole lot of people that has been through that building. I mean, you think if even half the people who graduated there or attended there will give just $100. ... It's gonna be up to the people. A lot of people (are) talking about (how) they want it. It's gonna be whether they step up and say so."

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

When the city shut Finley down in June, the center had nearly 40 members who paid to use the gym and workout area. The building also offered young people a place to play indoor basketball without charge and occasionally was rented out for private parties.

Both school district officials and the association hope they can find a solution that will benefit the community.

"They've got some energy," Bumgardner said of the association's members. "There's some good ideas on the table. I hope they'll move forward with some things."