Science program goes into Fresno’s Highway City:
•Fresno’s parks department will move its science program into a empty building.
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• A one-man crusade saved the program from disappearing.
• The Highway City neighborhood gets a needed boost.
Every child’s passion for learning has rescued perhaps the most forlorn neighborhood center in all of Fresno.
The city’s parks department is on the verge of reopening the Highway City Neighborhood Center some four years after the doors were slammed shut due to the Great Recession.
This time, though, the mission isn’t fun and games. The world has changed — we’re now talking fun and science.
The Highway City Community Science Center is coming.
“I’m elated because we really needed a new home for our science program,” Parks Director Manuel Mollinedo says. “It’s a program that captures a kid’s imagination. If the youngster comes one time, she’ll probably want to come again.”
Four themes are at play here:
• The parks department, long suffering during the economic downturn, is on the rebound.
• The department’s popular science program is ready to soar even higher.
• Grants and community support are proving key to this dual success.
• Highway City isn’t forgotten.
Parks took a beating when City Hall’s finances collapsed. Fresno was already infamous in many parts of America for its lack of quality greenspace. That was before money woes put a screeching halt to parks expansion and a big dent in parks maintenance.
This policy chaos was at its worst in 2010 when Mayor Ashley Swearengin, desperate to keep the city out of bankruptcy, sought the mercy of community groups. Adopt a park and its burden of greenspace maintenance, she said. Assume command of a community center, she said.
Many groups stepped up. But no one asked for the Highway City Neighborhood Center. It closed.
The city’s community science program was on the chopping block, as well.
This program was started more than 20 years ago and has had several homes. It was at downtown’s Dickey Park for much of the 1990s, moved for a few years to the Mosqueda Community Center in southeast Fresno, then landed at Granny’s Park near Manchester Center in central Fresno.
The program title’s key noun — science — pretty much explains all, Mollinedo says.
“It’s informal science with hands-on learning,” he says. “Basic concepts are explained. Science is made interesting.”
Youngsters in the 8-to-12-age range have been the prime consumers. They’ve been served at the community center of the moment. They’ve been served at schools and in the field by the program’s mobile arm.
Everything might have disappeared during City Hall’s cost-cutting mania if not for Manuel Hernandez, the community coordinator who oversees the science program. Mollinedo says Hernandez beat the bushes from Fresno to San Francisco in search of donors with an interest in science and kids.
Hernandez succeeded. The program didn’t miss an experiment, serving about 100 children a week at Granny’s and making the trek to classrooms throughout the metropolitan area.
But the home base at Granny’s was a doublewide trailer. Science, Mollinedo says, can sometimes resemble a contact sport. The fragile trailer was no long-term solution.
Then the dark clouds of financial doom parted at City Hall. Finances improved. Swearengin enthusiastically renewed her commitment to parks. A new park — Martin Ray Reilly Park — was recently opened in southeast Fresno. Construction of the Universally Accessible Park west of Highway 99 has the green light.
It was a short step from there to reopening the Highway City Neighborhood Center with the science program as its tenant. The building is 4,000 square feet. It’s solid enough to handle just about any science without an explosive element. City officials expect the science program to get double the business (40 kids a day) it got at Granny’s.
The center’s annual budget is about $200,000. Nearly 70% comes from contracts with schools. The San Joaquin River Conservancy has kicked in a $12,000 grant.
The City Council last Thursday didn’t need much arm-twisting to accept three more grants to keep the center going: $10,000 from PG&E, $18,000 from the California Tinkering After School Network and $15,000 from the Community Science Workshop Network.
City Hall is confident in the staying power of these money sources. On top of that, city officials say, the Highway City center’s playgrounds never closed. St. Joseph Church of Fresno adopted the greenspace during the economic downturn. The church remains a valued partner, officials say.
Quality greenspace. A worthy building. Top-notch science instruction. Secure financing. Mollinedo needs just one word to sum it all up: “Success.”
The ribbon-cutting should come in the spring, city officials say.
Of course, any youngster with a yen for science will be welcome. All the same, Mollinedo says, there’s something special about bringing life back to the building at the heart of the Highway City neighborhood.
Highway 99 is right there. So is Golden State Boulevard, the old 99. Shaw Avenue is a wide river of never-ending cars. The fast-food restaurants and gas stations to serve this bustle are plentiful. And don’t forget the railroad.
This is Highway City, to be sure, but not its essence. People live here.
Antonio Velasquez showed up at the Highway City Neighborhood Center on Tuesday. He was born in Highway City 34 years ago. He now lives two blocks from the center.
Velasquez on this day watches as his 3-year-old son and 8-year-old nephew enjoy the tot lot. The center’s building didn’t exist when he was a kid, Velasquez says.
He smiles at a scenario: The long-closed center reopens; science programs begin; the neighborhood kids, curious about it all, stick their heads through the front door.
Says Velasquez: “It’ll work.”