Buck Melton Community Center opens in old armory

The building at the corner of Anthony Road and Felton Avenue is an imposing sight. With its 31,000 square feet of space, sprawling blue, vaulted arches and towering glass windows, it is the jewel of the neighborhood.

But for those who live nearby, the new Buck Melton Community Center is more than a fancy, state-of-the-art complex. It is a sign of hope.

“This building shows that the sun is rising in Macon. It marks a new day, a new period of unity in which we are finally beginning to recognize we are one people,” said Mercer University Chancellor Kirby Godsey, who spoke to a crowd of almost 500 residents at the community center’s dedication Thursday.

The community center, a dream of the Macon Housing Authority for almost a decade, finally opened in the location of the former McKenna National Guard Armory.

The structure had been in decay since the late ’90s until the authority renovated it with more than $6 million in federal grant money.

The Melton center will house a variety of services and aid agencies on site, including free adult learning and job training, day care and early education classes, after-school tutoring and community recreation programs.

Among other amenities, it has a gymnasium, an auditorium, a computer lab and a game room.

The authority’s director, John Hiscox, said he thinks the center will fill a vital need in the area by helping to educate residents and give youths a positive outlet.

“The No. 1 goal of this project is greater literacy,” Hiscox said. “With greater literacy comes a greater community.”

Some of the tenants offering services in the center include the office of the Women, Infants and Children’s program, Central Georgia Technical College, Head Start and the Boys & Girls Club of Central Georgia.

Hiscox said the center is in a perfect location, because it is surrounded by a number of low-income housing neighborhoods. Next door is Felton Homes. Nearby are Tindall Heights and Murphy Homes.

“This is in a part of town with a very high concentration of need,” Hiscox said. “Now, residents will be equipped with all the services they need to escape the cycle of poverty in a single place. It’s a one-stop shop.”

Mike Jones, who has lived in a brick house across the street from the Melton center for the past 11 years, said he plans to use the center’s job placement programs to find work again.

“I’ve been out of work since I was laid off last December,” the 58-year-old father said. “This new center’s going to be really helpful for getting me back on my feet.”

A block away at Murphy Homes, Barbara Joseph said the center is the most encouraging development she’s seen in the community in more than 20 years.

“This is going to benefit people in all of the surrounding neighborhoods,” the 73-year-old retiree said. “I’m speechless.”

Vernita White, 56, said she thinks the new facility is a great place to send her 4-year-old granddaughter, Alaia Anderson, to the Head Start program.

“This is the sort of place she’ll want to come to even after she finishes preschool, as she becomes a teenager and gets involved in after-school programs,” White said. “I think it’s incredible.”

The community center is named after Buckner F. “Buck” Melton, a former Macon mayor and a longtime advocate of the community.

Macon resident Pearlie Toliver still remembers the first time she met Melton after the 1975 election.

“At that point, people in the black community were pretty upset because they thought it was time to have an African-American mayor, and Buck was the one who beat out the black candidate. But as soon as Buck won, he came over to me and said, ‘It’s time for healing.’ I knew then he’d do all he could do to bring about progress,” Toliver said.

“Buck was a healer. He came in during a time when somebody needed to step up and changed the way things worked,” Hiscox said. “He restored Macon’s credibility in the regional scene.”

Godsey said he can’t think of a better person to name the community center after.

“Buck was a distinguished visionary who was willing to live beyond the narrow confines of his surroundings,” Godsey said.

“He reminds us of what is possible when we all work together,” he said.

Melton, who attended the dedication with his wife, was on the verge of tears as he came to the podium to speak.

“This building is a shining star,” Melton said after the dedication. “This community’s going to be a whole new world because of this.”

To contact writer Carl Lewis, call 744-4347.