It isn’t often that La Mesa and environs can count on local performances from such world-famous entertainers as singer Tony Bennett.
However, just about 10 years ago it took a very special project, and a very special lady, to attract Mr. Bennett and his ageless talents to what was one of the newest and most impressive performing arts facilities built anywhere—and in this case adjacent to La Mesa’s western boundary.
Just a few months prior, and ten years ago this month, the grand opening of this state-of-the art recreational, entertainment, and educationally-focused community center had not only attracted its unprecedented philanthropic benefactress but another iconic American, Fred Rogers—yes, “the Mr. Rogers.”
That grand opening celebration marked the end of a four-year planning and development project that not only transformed what locals had thought was a hopelessly abandoned retail property in neighboring Rolando Park—but perhaps also helped provide a bit of a boost, and a precedent setting, make over for an internationally renowned charitable organization.
Hopes for a “Blighted” Retail Strip
For those of us members of the Rolando Community Council (RCC) that Spring 1998 evening, the anticipation was somewhat underwhelming. The Agenda for the monthly council meeting featured the typical reports of council activities, and visits from local politician’s staffs.
But it also was to feature an additional presentation.
A presentation from another set of potential buyers for the “abandoned” 12-acre retail property along the south side of University Avenue stretching from Aragon Drive on the west and the San Diego/La Mesa city boundaries at 69th Street in Rolando Park.
The site, formerly the open bed of Chollas Creek, had first been covered over and developed for the Unimart Store in 1959. Unimart being one of the first membership retail stores—requiring a union membership to shop there.
After Unimart the property was used by DeFalco’s Food Giant Market before a Home Depot store had been built on the west end and a Ralph’s Grocery on the east end in the early 1990s.
However the City of Lemon Grove made the Home Depot an offer they couldn’t refuse and the home improvement store moved there in the mid-1990s. Soon after the Ralph’s moved to the site of the former College Heights Hospital at the intersection of Montezuma, 67th and El Cajon Boulevard. In addition, as part of the deal for moving the Home Depot, the home improvement retailer continued to make their lease payments to the out-of-state property owners through 1997.
As such the 12-acre property had sat abandoned, its two large retail buildings empty and the property fenced, with little motivation for redevelopment.
It was that scenario of “blight” that the Rolando Community Council (RCC) hoped would end when their San Diego City Councilmember Judy McCarty announced to the local community that the property was now up for sale in early 1998.
There were reportedly four different prospective new owners—each with different development plans. At the previous Rolando Community Council meeting a development group had come to the council hoping to gain support for their plans to fill the 12 acres with a self-storage facility.
Fortuitously this writer was at that meeting and suggested that the council members wait to see all the proposals prior to making any recommendation.
And in this case, I think I got one right.
The Army Arrives and “the site’s” Salvation Ensues…
At the aforementioned meeting, long-standing RCC president Doris Perry introduced the guests. The two guests were Mr. Arthur Stillwell and the clearly identifiably uniformed Maj. Donald Bell, commander of the Salvation Army’s local Sierra del Mar Division.
Stillwell and Maj. Bell informed those in attendance that the Salvation Army had a multi-million dollar donation for a building a new community center in the San Diego area.
If the Salvation Army were to purchase the former Unimart/Home Depot property, they would use that site for the community center.
Needless to say their announcement met with near unanimous support from the Council.
The College Neighborhoods community along with that of La Mesa and Lemon Grove quickly recognized the sudden opportunity.
So apparently did the out-of-state property owners, who sold the property to the Salvation Army in summer 1998.
Soon after the donor was publicly identified as Mrs. Joan Kroc, widow of the McDonald’s restaurant empire entrepreneur Ray Kroc, County resident—and former owner of the San Diego Padres.
Her unprecedented donation was to be $80 million, with a large portion of the funds for an endowment that would cover a major portion of the center’s operating costs.
It was reported that Mrs. Kroc had approached the Salvation Army as the recipient of her generosity due to their spiritual mission, penchant for helping those in need, and her husband Ray’s enthusiasm for the work of the organization and its tight fiscal responsibility.
This announcement of Mrs. Kroc’s involvement and the funds available only enhanced the community’s interest and excitement toward the center’s possibilities.
Therefore the Salvation Army, directed by their experienced project director Art Stillwell, soon began to implement a well-planned methodology of taking this “ultimate gift” to a fully realized community center.
Breaking Ground for the Army and Center
Being that most of the Salvation Army’s programs focused on spiritual and social services, the challenge of creating a solely recreation focused community center was something new.
Minister William Booth had established the Salvation Army as an evangelical Christian ministry in London in 1878. Booth developed the “military-style ministry pattern” with himself as the original “General” and officer ranks given to it ministers.
The ministry’s structure proved so successful that by the turn of the 21st century the Salvation Army had established its Christian outreach programs in over 100 countries worldwide.
In addition to its religious ministry the Salvation Army had adapted to serve its communities with programs and services such as disaster relief, day-care, summer camps, holiday assistance, senior services, hospitals and medical facilities, women and children’s shelters, family and career counseling, vocational training, correctional services and drug rehabilitation.
The Salvation Army had been in San Diego since 1887 and had built very successful, similar programs over the following century including its well-known and appreciated Christmas baskets and toy drives and the Door of Hope shelter – to name but a few of their community-based efforts.
Recognizing the unique opportunityit – was at the time the largest single donation in the Army’s history – the Sierra del Mar Division leadership saw the chance to provide a broader range of community services from Mrs. Kroc’s gift.
As such the Salvation Army developed a highly impressive group of consultants and volunteers for providing the governance and leadership structure for the special project.
First, the Salvation Army’s Metropolitan San Diego Advisory Board established an Ad Hoc Special Project Committee led by long-time Board member and successful businessman Vincent Ciruzzi to oversee the community center’s programming, development and operations.
This committee featured a who’s who of civic, business, and community leaders from throughout San Diego County. Although technically located in San Diego, the Army made sure adjacent La Mesa and Lemon Grove were represented on the committee with mayors Art Madrid and Mary Sessom.
The Project team’s outreach strategy included a series of initial public meetings to gather information and input from all the potential constituents, partners and neighbors for the new center. Input was gathered from local educators, residents, recreation and social service providers, performing arts groups and youth.
By the end of 1998 the Ad Hoc Special Project Committee was meeting regularly and the planning process was in full swing.
Based on the input of consultants and community members an initial six sub-committees had been established. These included Program & Clients; Property/Facilities; Staff & Program Volunteers; Marketing & Communications; Advisory Council liaison; and Finance.
In January 1999 the Salvation Army hired the Austin Design Group of San Diego to be the project architects and lead designers and Roel Construction of San Diego as general contractor. (For the record: This writer was also added to the project team, initially as project historian, to assist with documenting the project’s progress, and later to the Ad Hoc and Advisory Committees).
By April 1999 the Ad Hoc Committee approved the Strategic Plan and moved forward with the planning and environmental review and permitting processes.
According to the accepted plan, written by consultants The Alford Group, Inc., the new center would look to support the Salvation Army’s core values and intertwine them within the center’s programs to ensure that both the community and Army’s needs would be served.
The plan also determined that the completed Center would include the following facilities: aquatics center, performing arts venue, ice-skating rink, gymnasium/sports center, library/education center, recreation field and a skateboarding park.
The inclusion of the skateboard park was one facility that was a direct result of local community input. students, and brothers Evan and Joel Scheingross, both founding members of the Center’s Youth Committee, gathered 1,350 signatures requesting its inclusion—their efforts insuring its addition to the plans.
Throughout the rest of 1999 and well into 2000 a myriad of consultants and sub-committees were brought on to help program and design the various facilities (several of these consultants such as those meeting for the Aquatics, Athletics, Performing Arts, Education, Performing Arts and Ice Arena occurred at least monthly—providing challenging logistic and project management tasks and long hours for project manager Art Stillwell and his able assistant Lydia Martinez-Zuver.
Yet, the project steadily continued on, as did the efforts to include, and inform, the local community on the project’s progress.
A series of public events highlighted this period. On March 24, 1999 the community outreach program resulted in a “Parade of Children’s Art” event. This featured the presentation of 40 mural panels painted by local school children from 21 surrounding elementary schools for Mrs. Kroc’s review.
Then on September 14, 1999 Mrs. Kroc was the guest of honor at the project construction “groundbreaking event” that included children from Rolando Park Elementary, and Helix High Schools and local community members.
With that groundbreaking ceremony, the 21-month long demolition and construction effort was to begin.
Building A Community Institution
With the project headed for implementation, the Sierra del Mar Division recognized the need to establish the long-range operational structure for its new institution.
In January 2000 they announced the formation of the RJKCC Advisory Council from the core of the former Ad Hoc committee. In addition the Advisory Council formally established standing committees for Finance, Community Relations, Seniors, Youth, Nominating, Property and Program with sub-committees for Education, Athletics, Family Enhancement, Ice Rink, Performing/Visual Arts and Aquatics.
Later that year, the Salvation Army also assigned their corps officers, Majors Timothy and Cynthia Foley to be the administrative heads of the Center. The Foley’ experience in youth ministry being valuable qualifications for the initial operations of the community center.
In the meantime the challenges of completing the design of the Center had come to a head. In early 2001 the initial construction estimates for the desired improvements totaled approximately $7 million more than the $50 million dollar construction budget. Appropriately, the Advisory Council directed the project team to “value engineer” down the project to meet the budget. However, when Mrs. Kroc heard of the cost trimming, she provided additional funds to make sure that the project was as world-class as it was envisioned to be.
In celebration, on October 16, 2001 a Cornerstone Ceremony was held to bury a time capsule in the partially constructed Ice Rink building. The Project team’s plans revealing the goal of opening the time capsule one hundred years later in 2101.
Considering the challenges of constructing a complex project with an ice rink, aquatics center and world-class theater building, it may have seemed to some that the construction was taking one hundred years.
However, the great efforts of the project manager Art Stillwell along with the designers and general contractor Roel Construction helped move through unexpected challenges such as contaminated soil from previous auto repair uses of the site and the need to create a new subterranean channel for the groundwater from the previously covered Chollas Creek.
Yet, progress continued and in Spring 2002 the Advisory Council prepared for the long awaited grand opening day.
Grand Opening Day June 19, 2002
As construction moved into its final days in the Spring 2002, the Advisory Council, Division, and newly hired RJKCCC staff moved toward the dedication day set for June 19th.
The dedication event was to be not only a celebration of the amazing efforts of Joan Kroc, but for all the volunteers and community members who Mrs. Kroc had inspired to get involved in such an amazing project. The event’s program featured special guests, a performance from La Mesa’s Peter Pan Junior Theater group and an ensemble from the San Diego Opera Company.
The event was aptly titled “It’s a Beautiful Day In This Neighborhood.”
And that apt title was because the opening’s very special guest was the iconic children’s television host, educator and advocate Fred Rogers—“the one and only Mr. Rogers!”
Rogers stole the show when he stepped on stage and shed his jacket and changed into his typical sweater—but this time it had a Salvation Army logo on it.
Rogers made his own editorial comment in his praise of Joan Kroc and her farsighted vision for the community center when he noted that many people want to build more prisons to deal with societal problems—but that he found Joan Kroc’s reaction to build more swimming pools, basketball courts and ice rinks much more effective.
“What a beautiful day in this neighborhood,” remarked Rogers.
Of course the praise for Joan Kroc and her generosity was the continuous theme that day. The General of the Salvation Army, John Gowans was present, having traveled from London. General Gowans awarded Mrs. Kroc the Salvation Army’s highest honor, the “Order of Distinguished Auxiliary Service.” Gowens remarked that the center would meet the Army and Mrs. Kroc’s goals of allowing all those that “walk through the door” to be able to achieve to their potential.
Kroc herself was typically understated. She was quoted in the same June 20, 2002 San Diego Union-Tribune article as saying “I just wanted to do something. I wanted to help.” “It’s been a beautiful, beautiful day.”
An Angelic Legacy
Of course there have been many beautiful days at the RJKCCC in the 10 years since that dedication day.
At the formal opening of the Joan Kroc Theatre for the Performing Arts at the RJKCCC on March 25, 2003, the legendary singer Tony Bennett performed in the recently completed, world-class 600-seat venue. A highlight of the evening being Mrs. Kroc’s accompanying Bennett on the piano for her favorite song, “Our Love is Here to Stay.”
Unfortunately Mrs. Kroc would pass away just seven months later in October 2003. Yet, her legacy of giving would continue on.
Upon her death she gifted $1.5 billion to the Salvation Army to continue to build and operate “Kroc Centers” across the country. According to the Salvation Army’s website www.salvationarmyusa.org there have been 19 additional Kroc Centers built with 8 more scheduled to open in 2012.
For those of us who were involved, it is with a great deal of pride that we see the success of the Kroc Centers and Mrs. Kroc’s vision.
And not just for when a “Tony Bennett” visits, but for everyone who goes there to exercise, take a class, socialize with friends, seek spiritual inspiration and/or gain sage counsel for life’s challenges.
All of us who had but just a few fleeting chances to speak with Mrs. Kroc during those four years of making her dream come become a reality, no words could ever had been enough to express the lasting value of her legacy to this community.
Our course it is not shocking that San Diego’s long-standing journalistic bard Neil Morgan got it right in his June 12, 2002 Union-Tribune column when he called Joan Kroc a “benevolent angel.”
I must admit, as a trained, stick-to-the-facts, and generally cynical historian – and a non-religious person to boot – if I’m ever asked if I have met a real life angel?
I would have to answer honestly, “Yes, and her name was Joan Kroc.”
This Tuesday June 19, 2012 the original RJKCCC will celebrate the 10th anniversary of its dedication with a 7:30 p.m. concert during its “10 Days of Kroc” celebration.
For more information see their website at www.kroccenter.org