West Lemon Hill breaks ground on long-awaited center

Published: Wednesday, May. 1, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Thursday, May. 2, 2013 - 8:10 am

After an eight-year wait, one of Sacramento County's most crime-ridden neighborhoods broke ground Tuesday on a community center that will assist residents with health, employment and nutritional needs.

The 10,000-square-foot building will be built on an open lot at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and 41st Avenue, in the unincorporated county just south of Sacramento. It is expected to open in January.

"It's a fairly isolated community," said Joan Graham, executive director of the Community Resource Project, a local nonprofit that assists low-income residents. "There are not a lot of services in the area for people here."

The Louise Perez Community Center will bear the name of a woman who died of cancer before her agency could finish the project. It will also contain a community room named after Vu Nguyen, a sheriff's detective who was murdered in the neighborhood several years ago.

Construction for the $2.1 million center is being funded by Sacramento County and the Community Resource Project, which will run the center along with Asian Resources Inc.

The project had been held up because of a number of financial issues, most of them related to the recession, Graham said. The nonprofit was not able to raise as much money as it had originally hoped, forcing Sacramento County officials to find more funding.

Speakers at Tuesday's groundbreaking ceremony got emotional as they spoke about the difficulties getting the center started.

Graham said the Sheriff's Department and the District Attorney's Office approached her organization several years ago about opening the center because of concerns about crime in the neighborhood. Louise Perez was then executive director of the Community Resource Project; she would die from cancer-related complications before the project started.

The need for the center, however, is as strong as ever, Graham said.

The Bee profiled west Lemon Hill, also known as "The Avenues," in a Sunday front-page story in February. Between January 2007 and November 2012, no other similarly sized area in Sacramento County had more reports of two categories of gun crimes: assault with a firearm and shooting into an occupied dwelling or vehicle.

About 2,500 people are residents of the neighborhood, about a third of whom live in poverty.

Retired Chief Deputy R.C. Smith said he originally came up with the idea for a neighborhood center in 2005, when he ran the nearby Florin Road sheriff's substation. The department was concerned about crime involving day laborers often hanging out in west Lemon Hill.

The laborers often carried cash, making them a target. Some of them were also perpetrators of crime, Smith said.

The Los Angeles Police Department came up with an idea of providing community service centers to address a similar crime problem with day laborers, Smith said.

The idea of providing services to day laborers, some of whom are in the country illegally, made the Sacramento proposal controversial to some people, he said.

Graham credited Sacramento County Supervisor Jimmie Yee with finding funds to get construction started.

Yee, who represents the area, said he tapped a number of public grants to come up with about $1 million for the project.

The December 2007 killing of Detective Nguyen helped spur political resolve to get the project funded, Yee said. Nguyen, working on a gang detail, was killed by a 16-year-old boy he was chasing.

Yee called the community center one of the most important projects he's worked on in his seven years as a county supervisor.

Call The Bee's Brad Branan, (916) 321-1065. Follow him on Twitter @bradb_at_sacbee.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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