By Brandon Martin
While a majority may drive by the rusted gates of the W. M. Bassett Community Center on Blackberry Road without a second glance, those recently touring the facility saw potential and emerged with a new resolve.
Linda Crabtree, who is spearheading the project, amassed a few like-minded individuals to help.
“Right now, I just have two or three people that have said they would serve on a committee. This isn’t my forte for certain, but I wanted to see something done,” Crabtree said. “After we walk through, hopefully we will have a better idea of what we are looking at dollar-wise. Then we can go meet with the board of the community center to see what we can do.”
The impetus for her involvement is simple.
“I worked here from 1962 until the end of the summer of 1969. I just love this place. It broke my heart when I saw it last October and saw the shape it was in. I just want to see what we can do. I’ve never done anything like this before. I’m just an interested person that wanted to see something done. I have a dream to get it back like it used to be,” Crabtree said.
The center was last open to the public shortly before the pandemic started to take effect in February 2020, she said. Since then, the power has been turned off, and a few break-ins have left the building ransacked.
“There was a break-in in January,” Crabtree said. “They had a brand-new refrigerator, and they took that. Pretty much anything with any value, they took. Even the copper pipes.”
The current state of the center left many in the group shocked and dismayed.
“It just makes me sick to see it get to this disarray because I know how hard we worked on this place to get it up and running to have a nice place for the kids,” said Pamela Biggs, a former director of the center. “My kids were raised here. This place used to be booming. We had MHC After 3 and water aerobics. We had all kinds of programs in here. Softball, volleyball, you name it.”
Before stepping away due to health issues, Biggs said the center was running strong.
“I think the money and COVID did a number on it,” she said. “The boiler went out and when the boiler goes out, there goes your heat. If you don’t have any heat, then you can’t really have events because it gets really cold. I think that was the start. Eddie said the boiler was like $75,000.”
When word started to spread about a possible revitalization effort, Biggs said she was pushed to get involved.
“My son is very adamant,” she said. “He said ‘momma, please go and write down the problems and see what we can do’ because he has a heart for this place. He said he wouldn’t mind running it. I don’t know if we are getting to that point today. We are just looking to see what all needs to be done. It’s hard because when you work and basically live here and to come in and see it looking how it looks, it’s so heartbreaking.”
Peggy Rogers, a former patron and committee member, said the sight of the building “hurts.
“We love this place. We love Bassett, and we are hoping we can build it back up for the kids that live here so they will have a place to go,” she said. “It was wonderful when it was first built. It had a bowling alley, a place to do ceramics, a place to swim, a place to play basketball, a place to play shuffleboard. It was a beautiful place. It’s hard to imagine it now.”
Rogers said a lot of money will be needed to get the center running again, but it will be worth the cost.
“I was a little girl when it first opened,” she said. “It just gave a lot of opportunities to a lot of kids. They have a big kitchen where they would have meals, they’d have lots of meetings. It was the center of a lot of things here. We will never have the bowling alley again, but just to be able to have it for kids during the summer would be great. We’ve lost a lot in Bassett and we just want to get it back a little bit like it used to be.”
Sterling Anderson, a former lifeguard at the center, said walking through the building now makes her sad.
“I have a special connection with this place, I guess because it was my first job,” she said. “I worked here for about four years until 2017.”
A functional recreational center would mean a lot for the younger generation, according to Anderson.
“The kids that used to come here, I felt like they were my family. I really miss the kids and them having a place to come, especially after COVID,” she said. “A lot of the kids don’t have anything to do, and it would be great for them to be able to come back and experience it again. I know Fieldale is opening but they can’t hold all those people, I don’t think. It would be awesome for me to see it reopened.”
The group reached a consensus on the first priority.
“The main thing is to get the pool open,” Crabtree said. “That’s the draw right now. There’s nothing else to draw people except the gym. We probably won’t get that done this year. We don’t have any money. We are going to have to raise it.”
Biggs also wants the pool to return.
“If you think about it, this pool and the Fieldale pool are the only pools in Henry County open to the public. Of course, this one is closed right now,” Biggs said. “But there are no other pools and people have to go to the lake. I’m not a lake person. I want to see what’s under my feet and there are a lot of people like that. I would love to see it up and running and restored even better than it was before.”
Wes Wells, a volunteer with a construction background, said more work would need to be done before the group can get to restoring the pool.
“We have to start inside first,” he said. “You’ll have to get it up to code before you can get the power on. You can put temporary power in during construction, but you couldn’t turn the power on until it was totally inspected” and the county issued an occupancy permit.
Without a financial backer, renovations would come at a significant cost.
“You’ll have to get an architect in here to do a study and let them tell you what it would take to get it up to today’s code,” Wells said. “Just looking at it, I can see the tiles have got asbestos. Probably the pipe installation has it too. You could be looking at a $100,000 asbestos removal easily. With the boiler, the asbestos and everything, I don’t know if we can even do it with $1 million.”
Crabtree said she is currently considering numerous options to find the funds to start the project.
“We are going to see if we can get a plan together and maybe get a PUP (Pick Up the Pace!) grant from the Harvest Foundation to hire someone to do a feasibility study,” Crabtree said.
From there, the details will need to be ironed out further.
Eddie White, president of the center’s board, also toured the facility. He noted several issues led to the center’s downslide.
“I think things started to go south on us when the boiler went out three years ago,” he said. “That’s a big-ticket item that we had somebody price for us. It’s just something that we couldn’t afford. It just got to the point where we could not pay the bills. That’s why we had to close up shop.”
But White also is committed to finding a way to breathe new life into the center.
“If there is a way to make this work, we are certainly willing to explore all options,” White said.