Belfast Telegraph

Pleas for centre to remain open

by Chris McCann

The boss of a popular east Belfast community centre has pleaded with Belfast City Council officials not to close the facility.

Stephen Baine, who manages the Connswater Community Centre in Connswater Street, claims the facility is facing closure by the end of this month because it paid its 28 volunteers £26,000 in expenses out of its annual £57,000 council budget.

Mr Baine conceded that the centre “has made some silly mistakes” but says efforts are in place to improve the way in which it is run — which includes enlisting the help of the East Belfast Community Development Agency.

He said the centre was “vital” to local people and is hoping the council will yet reverse its decision to end the lease.

“This centre is used by locals and by people from outside the area,” said Mr Baine.

“It will be a terrible shame to close it. We have a pensioner at 90-years-old who walks a mile and a half every day to get his dinner here, he’s an old war veteran. This is just one example of how the centre works well for people.

“I took over as manager two and half years ago and I’ve had two strokes in that time. I was in hospital for three weeks and came straight back into work. That’s what this centre means to me.

“It’s terrible to be criticised |for a job you’re doing on a |voluntary basis.

“The council say we are using the funds for our volunteers, but the reality is councillors on the council might spend more a day on their lunch than what we pay our volunteers.”

The centre runs a number of projects including nightly five-a-side football, a pensioners’ group, mixed martial arts and dance groups. It opens seven days a week and 12 hours a day.

Mr Baine says he has met with a number of political representatives on the issue, who have vowed to fight the centre’s corner. In a message to the council bosses, Mr Baine said: “Give us the support we need. Yes, we’ve made some silly mistakes but show us where we have went wrong and we can make this a successful centre.”

A Belfast City Council spokesman said: “The decision was informed by the outcome of a review of the centre’s performance and the group’s management capacity. The review presented demonstrable evidence that the group do not have the capability to manage the project.”

Councillor Jim Rodgers, a member of the council’s development committee, which made the decision, said: “This is a most unfortunate situation.

“We need community facilities in east Belfast. Personally I will leave no stone unturned to reach a satisfactory conclusion.”

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