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Official: Walnutport ‘misrepresented’ in Dec. release

A Walnutport official said she believes the borough has been misrepresented and made to be a scapegoat for the uncertainty surrounding the Northern Lehigh Recreation/community center.

Councilwoman Jennifer Wentz spoke about a release that was distributed by the Northern Lehigh Community Center to media last month.

The Northern Lehigh Recreation Authority’s board of directors said that the completion of the center, located at 545 W. Church St., Slatington, could be in jeopardy.

COVID-19 has seriously jeopardized fundraising, said Michelle Raber, vice president and program chair for the Northern Lehigh Community Center.

Additionally, Raber said that Walnutport Borough Council, one of the three participating municipalities, voted against supporting the Northern Lehigh Recreation Authority this year.

As a result, the board of directors said the NLRA’s board voted to not include taking on the Northern Lehigh Community Center’s building project as one of their tasks.

The board has solicited funds this past December from the public to continue their recreational and educational programs and fulfill their budget deficit they face.

Borough ‘misrepresented’

Wentz said she believes the release was a “misrepresentation of us.”

In order for the borough to not raise municipal taxes this year, the borough decided not to fund the NLRA.

Wentz said the borough was singled out in the release, and said she plans to ask the NL Community Center to issue a new release.

Council President William Turk defended Wentz.

“They didn’t make any decision to help us in any way,” Turk said. “I think we made the right decision.”

Wentz said the borough would revisit the situation annually.

“It sounds like Walnutport killed the Community Center,” she said. “We already knew they weren’t taking it over. They totally pinned it on us and COVID.”

“We made this decision in December when we already knew the community center wasn’t going to be taken over,” she said. “If need be, we’ll release our own response.”

Where the center stands

Since the Northern Lehigh Playground Association relinquished the programs to the Northern Lehigh Recreation Authority, Raber said the income stream has been severely curtailed, and it no longer has the funds to pay its insurance and real estate taxes.

The authority said it needs help to generate $1.5 million to finish the existing Phase 1, the shell of the building.

Phase 2 would consist of the construction of the gymnasium at a much lower cost. Substantial donors could have their names placed on the outside of the building.

The authority said it could gift the building to be used for the benefit of the community - such as the school for a lifelong learning center, borough or township for a recreation/educational center.

The authority said it would need a large or a few large donors to help complete the project.

The worst-case scenario is to sell the building and donate the proceeds to the Northern Lehigh Recreation Authority to continue providing educational and recreational events for the Northern Lehigh area.

History of building

In 1997, a concerned group of residents, hoping to improve the Northern Lehigh Area, formulated a plan to buy land and construct a recreation/community center and offer educational and fitness programs.

The nonprofit obtained a logo and website, www.nlcommunitycenter.com, and fundraising began.

After raising $736,000 through state grants and citizen contributions, the group purchased land; demolished existing buildings on the land; installed infrastructure for drainage; secured a 50-year lease for adjacent property, and began construction of the building shell.

To continue with the construction, the group applied for additional grants and contributions, but these funds never materialized. Currently, the group is debt-free.

A Northern Lehigh Recreation Authority was formed with the advice of then state Rep. Julie Harhart to include the three municipalities of the Northern Lehigh School District residents and have more avenues available to obtain funding to finish the construction of the building.

A look at the proposed Northern Lehigh Community Center at 545 W. Church St., Slatington. TIMES NEWS FILE PHOTO