The Bustleton Bengals youth sports organization has long dreamed of having a gymnasium of its own.
The planned gym would be at Robert Hayes Playground, at Roosevelt Boulevard and Conwell Avenue, where the group’s clubhouse is located.
City Councilman Brian O’Neill has committed to funding 90 percent of the project, and the Bengals are working hard to try to raise the rest. The estimated overall cost is $1 million to $1.2 million.
“We’re taking baby steps, but we’re getting there,” said Kevin Hughes, president of the organization and a member since 1989.
“There’s still a ways to go, but we’re moving in the right direction. We’ll keep plugging. Our people are behind us,” said Vince Tarducci, the gym project director.
The former Bustleton Boys Club has served neighborhood youths since 1956. More than 1,000 families are part of “Bengal Nation,” which offers basketball, baseball, softball, tee-ball, football, soccer, hockey, cheerleading and fishing to boys and girls 4 and older.
“We need a gym for the community. We’re keeping kids involved and off the street,” said Chris McNicholas, the gym fundraising director.
The gym would be attached to the clubhouse to make it more cost-effective. It would feature a full-length basketball court, two side courts, bleachers, an expanded kitchen, a small meeting room, storage space and handicapped-accessible bathrooms.
The facility would be built on an angle and in such a way that it would not infringe on the hockey court or baseball fields. A batting cage would be relocated.
The building would be roughly 70 feet wide and 120 feet long.
“Any trees that we’d have to take down, we would replace somewhere else on the grounds,” Hughes said.
The gym has been talked about for two decades, but hasn’t moved forward for one reason or another.
At present, there is reason for optimism.
O’Neill has money set aside for the gym.
“There’s a scarcity of gym time in the Far Northeast,” he said.
The city will also pay for the utilities and any major repairs.
Still, the councilman understands that it is difficult for a group of volunteers to raise at least $100,000, especially in a poor economy.
Another obstacle is the lack of state funding. Back in 1999, when the Somerton Youth Organization gym opened on Southampton Road, the estimated cost of $700,000 was split evenly between the city and the state.
O’Neill wants to see the project completed because he is impressed by the energy and commitment of the volunteers, and their willingness to operate a building of their own. He’d also like to see some new playground equipment installed, now that a gym location has been determined.
The Bengals are grateful for O’Neill’s longtime support and for a couple of area public schools that allow them to use their gyms.
“We’re very appreciative that we’re able to use Anne Frank and Baldi,” Tarducci said. “Without them, we wouldn’t be able to have a basketball program.”
The gym would be used, primarily, for basketball and indoor soccer games and practices.
“The gym could be open every weekend all year,” Tarducci said. “We’d have the keys.”
“Court time in the area is at a premium,” Hughes said. “We’re trudging from school to school. And we don’t know year to year if we can get these neighborhood schools because of budget cuts.”
The fact that there has been no groundbreaking could be hurting the fundraising, but progress is being made.
The gym committee started to meet with architects and contractors last November.
In January, the city aviation department — which owns the ground — gave its OK to build there. The Bengals already help keep the grounds clean by removing trash and debris.
In February, the club held its second annual beef-and-beer benefit, helping to increase its coffers to about $60,000.
The committee has sent out fundraising letters, held candle sales and is planning a Coach Bag Bingo event. Money could also be generated by selling sponsorship on signs, at the midcourt floor and in the gym’s four corners.
Bengals officials have met with the people who oversaw the building of gyms for Liberty Bell Youth Organization, Rhawnhurst Athletic Association and St. Martha.
By the end of May, they hope to start requesting bids from contractors. A site plan, soil samples and building permits are also part of the process. Groundbreaking could take place by late 2014.
The Bengals celebrated baseball opening day on Saturday, and hope to celebrate the grand opening of a gym sometime in the near future.
“It would be a dream come true,” McNicholas said.
Donations to the gym fund can be sent to Bustleton Bengals Club, P.O. Box 6103, Philadelphia, PA 19115. For more information on the gym initiative, visit www.bustletonbengals.org ••