Highland Park Mayor Gayle Brill Mittler is no teenager and has no teens in her household, but for the past year and a half she has been doing a lot of talking about teens. Specifically she has a vision for a Highland Park teen center that she “refuse(s) to abandon….Teens have no place to go when not in school – no ‘Y’ and the Senior/Youth Center, in fact, is far more for seniors than for youth….I hate to see the teens just aimlessly hanging out on the street,” she said.
At the December 1, 2015 Highland Park Council meeting, the mayor’s dream of a teen center got closer to becoming a reality. After acting at a previous meeting to approve the funding for the purchase of a foreclosed home at 203 South Sixth Avenue, council at its most recent meeting approved the funding for the demolition of the foreclosed home and the building of a “very modest, yet functional” building for teen activities. Council members praised the location of the facility – walking distance to the high school and diagonally across the street from the current senior/youth center.
In total, the Highland Park Borough Council authorized up to $400,000 out of the $1.7 million capital projects bond ordinance for the creation of the facility dedicated to the recreational and social needs of the community’s youth (13 to 18 years old). It was noted that the capital expenses of building the center are far less expensive what it would have cost to expand the center by adding a floor at an estimated cost of $1.5 million. An expanded or new library that could accommodate teen activities would have been another option, but a library project is complicated and would take much longer to implement.
The costs operating the facility (cleaning, heating/cooling, staffing for programs and security) are undetermined thus far, but the mayor is hoping the project will be a candidate for grants, especially since the police will be implementing its youth education programs that are focused on getting teens comfortable with the role of police officers in the community. A director of the center, probably a part-time Highland Park Recreation Department position, would be in charge of the after-school, evenings, and possibly weekend programming that would be carried out in collaboration with the high school. The center would have space for all kinds of activities – performing arts, visual arts, doing homework, watching TV, reading, playing ping pong, playing basketball.
In a recent Highland Park Planet survey of about a dozen teens, most individuals reacted favorably to the existence of a teen center. However, the high school students did raise a couple of issues, such as whether the teens would actually use the center and whether kids from outside the district would be allowed to use it. These and other issues are unresolved, but a teen center advisory board is grappling with these policies for the center that the mayor hopes will be up and running by the fall of 2016.