• Organization to turn fire station into community center

    By: PATRICK FILBIN, Chattanooga Times Free Press

    Updated:
    CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) - The old Chattanooga Fire Station No. 5 in Highland Park has seen better days.

    Ceiling tiles are missing, furniture is strewn across the concrete floor, lockers are emptied and the building is mostly vacant after firefighters moved across the parking lot to their brand-new building.

    On the morning of Sept. 12, Stacy Johnson peeked out of the front door of the old fire station and glanced at the lawn that looked like it hadn't been touched in weeks.

    "Maybe we should mow the grass," she said.

    The old station, a work in progress, soon will be the new home of La Paz Chattanooga.

    New beginnings

    Johnson is the executive director of La Paz and has been since 2008.

    La Paz - which turns 15 this year - is a local social service agency that works to empower and engage Chattanooga's Latino population. Since opening, La Paz has kept at its core mission to expand the Latino population's influences with entrepreneurs and professionals who help create a vibrant, diverse business community.

    La Paz believes the Latino community is an asset to Chattanooga and its economy, promoting inclusion through advocacy, educating people on Latino culture and developing Latino leaders in the city.

    According to La Paz's numbers, there are 30,000 Latino community members in Chattanooga. Tennessee is also one of the states with the fastest-growing Latino populations in the country, according to the U.S. Census.

    La Paz serves about 20% of the Latino population in Chattanooga. As that number grows, La Paz needs to grow with it, Johnson said.

    In 2003, she said, there were 929 Hispanic students in the Hamilton County school system. In 2018, that number was more than 6,000.

    "That doesn't include people who are in private school, homeschooled, not in school, so you can see the drastic increase in population," she said. "We have seen that as well with those who we serve. The need is getting bigger, and we just haven't been able to meet those needs as well as we feel like we should because of the space constraint."

    For the last eight years, La Paz Chattanooga has been headquartered at a small house on Bailey Avenue. In the last four years - as La Paz's outreach has grown - the space has gotten cramped and it lacks privacy for the people it serves.

    As the organization grew, Johnson and the rest of the staff started to look for a new home. They wanted the space to be inviting, multi-purpose and for it to offer the community it serves a wide variety of options.

    They also wanted it to be in the right location.

    "Historically, Highland Park has been highly populated with the Latino community," Johnson said. "It has changed a bit, but we still feel like Highland Park is centralized to the Hispanic community and the general Chattanooga community, so we wanted to be in that middle zone."

    Chattanooga City Councilwoman Demetrus Coonrod, who represents District 9, said La Paz Chattanooga's influence on the community is critically important in supporting the diversity of the city and its neighboring communities.

    As the organization grows, Johnson said she wants La Paz to serve more than Chattanooga's Latino population and branch out into the community as a whole. Coonrod said that's a great idea.

    "It's very important for La Paz to make its mission a collaborative effort," Coonrod said. "That's how we can thrive. It starts with understanding each other's stories."

    Coonrod said oppression might look different in black and Latino communities - and certainly looks different in countries all over the world - but understanding what those struggles are, becoming friends and learning to work together is a key to a community's success.

    When the Chattanooga Fire Department moved into its new building in May, that left the bones of a perfectly good building up for grabs.

    With the old fire station being just a few blocks away from its current location, its proximity to the Highland Park Commons, walking distance from the busiest bus route in the city and a number of other key factors, La Paz set its eyes on the old fire station.

    Two weeks ago, the organization made it official and closed on the building that will soon become a new community center. The Maclellan Foundation provided La Paz the money to buy the building and property. It was not immediately clear how much La Paz paid.

    Through donations and fundraising, La Paz has raised $700,000 of the total $1 million it needs for the project, which includes the purchase of the building and the renovation.

    Now, the real work begins.

    Moving in and moving forward

    With La Paz's new facility, Johnson hopes the organization can reach even more people in Chattanooga. She said it serves about 6,000 people a year.

    "Right now we're in a 2,000-square-foot building, so we have really high expectations that moving into this, doubling (the space) of our current location, we could triple our impact and serve up to 15,000 a year," she said.

    David Barlew, the architect on the project, said in the beginning stages of the plan the organization considered building a completely new facility.

    "If you were going to build this new, it would cost over $100,000 more than what it's going to cost to renovate it," Barlew said. "So it's saving the organization at least $100,000."

    In his most recent mock-ups, the new space includes an outdoor patio the fire station's double doors will open up to. He plans on redesigning the main room as a multipurpose conference room with a full kitchen for culinary classes and catering events, a social impact wing that will offer more privacy for clients and a more organized environment for the staff.

    "In our old space, where you come in, you sit down and tell your life story and you have people sitting right behind you waiting, trying not to listen but you can't help it," Johnson said. "This will be a very private space."

    "All the offices are going to have windows out of them so that while the parents are in their meetings, they can look out and see the kids in the children's room," Barlew said. "There's a visual connection."

    Old dining rooms will be converted to conference rooms, an old workout room will be used for staff offices and, hopefully in about a year, La Paz will have a new building to call home.

    The new space also will offer more language support services for the community, be able to host more meetings and training workshops and offer the Latino community a safer space to get advice when legal, medical or other emergencies arise.

    Johnson said it will offer to allow outside agencies and organizations to have events there instead of at other sites.

    "Right now we use a lot of outside space and have events at schools, which is great, but a lot of times people want to have things at La Paz," she said.

    Johnson mentioned a recent event that was held at the Bailey Avenue house at which 22 business owners "piled into our little conference room" for the workshop.

    The road has been a long one, and the group still has a way to go.

    "We outgrew our current space probably four years ago," Johnson said. "We haven't been able to do what we feel like we should be doing for the community."

    At the end of the day, the new building is a big step forward in La Paz's journey.

    "We serve some of the most vulnerable people, and we want them to feel dignified," Johnson said. "We want them to have confidentiality. We need a nice, comfortable place that feels homey and a place where they feel valued."

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    Information from: Chattanooga Times Free Press, http://www.timesfreepress.com

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