Mount Ararat Community Activities Center to open new, larger space in East End

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The Union Project took on the role of community builder when it established itself in a former church at Stanton and Negley avenues in 2001. Sometime this year, it will have company across Stanton when the Mount Ararat Community Activities Center opens in the former Craig Academy.

On the surface, having two community centers in such proximity might seem odd. But these two present "a good synergy," said Jeffrey Dorsey, executive director of the Union Project. "We call ourselves an arts, enterprise and events center, even though community is at the core. It's great to have a more typical community center with us both covering a lot of needs."

Denise Williams, the Mount Ararat center's executive director, recently met with Mr. Dorsey "to talk about what we do and what they do and our opportunities to collaborate and benefit each other," she said. "Our whole purpose is community, from infants to senior citizens."

Housed in the Mount Ararat Baptist Church on Paulson Avenue in Larimer, the community center is "bursting at the seams," she said. If possible, she would like to open the new location by the end of June, when summer camp starts, "and if not, in September" so that summer programs can run undisrupted at the Larimer site, she said.

The new location -- just minutes from the church by car -- offers greater visibility for outreach on a heavily traveled corridor and a bus line.

"I think we will draw from more neighborhoods," she said, adding that people who might not have come to Larimer from Morningside or Stanton Heights will be closer to the new location in East Liberty.

David Hance, president of the Highland Park Community Development Corp., called the Stanton and Negley intersection "a very important corner." It blends Highland Park with East Liberty and has been a focal point of making East Liberty more stable.

Mr. Hance said his organization had hoped the next use for Mount Ararat's site would be housing, "but we supported them based on Mount Ararat's reputation and commitment to services that are needed in the community."

Other organizations in Highland Park and East Liberty and city Councilman Patrick Dowd also supported the relocation. The zoning board of adjustment approved the proposed use in February.

The new center is 38,000 square feet and will roughly triple the space for after-school, mentorship and early childhood programs, Ms. Williams said. Besides youth programs, the center holds classes for elders, from quilting and computer literacy to educational forums and field trips. It operates a food pantry, clothing bank and computer lab. All services are open to the public, she said.

The center is its own nonprofit, but the church, with a congregation of between 8,000 and 9,000 members, purchased the building for $500,000 last year and is involved in its work.

Mr. Dorsey said he had initial concerns about parking, traffic and whether the center would be open to the greater community and not just Mount Ararat's congregation. Those concerns largely have been dispelled, he said.

The former owner had let the Union Project use its parking lot when the school was empty "and we were worried that if we couldn't use it after the center opens that the strain of parking might make people not choose us" for events. But the community center programs during weekdays and the Union Project "is heavy on weekday evenings and weekends," he said.

The Union Project holds events and classes, rents space for weddings and parties, runs a ceramics program with 80 partners that include schools and summer camps, and houses a small-business incubator.

"One of things we talked about was how our programs could partner with their students and families," Mr. Dorsey said. "And if people from their church need a space for parties or showers, they could have those over here."

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Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626.


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