By Doyle Murphy
CITY OF NEWBURGH — The Newburgh Armory Unity Center is a busy place these days.
Saturday mornings begin at 8 a.m. with a reading program, basketball and karate. A four-time NCAA All-American wrestler soon arrives to coach a dozen kids. Hispanic immigrants newly schooled in English classes head into side rooms for basic computer lessons. New gardeners make plans for the 49 black-dirt plots going in outside.
Three years ago, the city bought the massive building from the state for $1 mostly because it seemed foolish to pass up such a good deal. Today, the center represents Newburgh's better self.
"I think it's going to be a few years before we see it," armory CEO Deirdre Glenn said, "but I really hope we have a significant impact on the education of the city's youth."
About 600-800 people use the facility on a weekly basis during the busy winter months. A gleaming basketball court opened in the fall of 2010, and the new soccer field in the building's former drill hall followed in early 2013. Glenn said they're still developing the model, but the goal is to use rental fees from the drill hall to support free programs throughout the building. Now that the indoor soccer field is in place, the armory is closer than ever to that ideal.
Sports draw most first-timers
Sports still draw most first-timers into the armory, but a slate of educational programs is growing rapidly. A children's library is scheduled to open by the end of May, and the center recently celebrated the first graduate from an on-site GED program. Major thrusts of the educational programs focus on literacy and citizenship.
Jamill Smith, 16, spends three nights each week playing basketball at the armory, walking or catching a ride from his Lander Street home. On a recent night, he scrimmaged with his Boys and Girls Club teammates against a younger squad.
"It's simple," Smith said. "Everybody just plays basketball."
Down the hall, a Zumba class was underway. Sandy Mackay, 62, of the Town of Newburgh, and Sue Hannigan, 65, of Montgomery, said they followed their instructor, Kima Saracino, to the center and now show up every week for their workout.
"It's awesome," Hannigan said.
Glenn said programs, such as a newly popular acting class, are populated by kids who arrive for a basketball or soccer game and discover something new. An expanded community garden, designed by Cornell Cooperative Extension, is already benefiting from crossover traffic. Students in Newburgh Free Academy's ROTC program spent Saturday building rows of garden beds into the hillside behind the building. Glenn said the project could become a full-fledged urban farm within a few years. Alexis Faria, a 15-year-old ROTC member, signed up to volunteer on future weekends. She said the gardens will take off once people see them.
"I think," she said, "everyone is going to be really proud."