FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) — When the Jennings Center closed around back-to-school season due to staffing issues, it had not been the first time it happened in 2023.
“I know that we had some issues in early spring, so we had the [Jennings] Center closed for a big portion of spring,” said Steve McDaniel, director of Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation.
Although the Jennings Center received appropriate staffing during the summer due to college students being home, the center had to close again when they left for school.
The nature of how the Jennings Center closed caused plenty of controversy at Tuesday’s Fort Wayne City Council meeting.
During the meeting, McDaniel represented Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation to discuss the department’s 2024 budget.
However, the conversation instead revolved around the Jennings Center and how it closed down without many officials connected to the center being notified.
Anita Dortch, a member of the Jennings Center’s advisory board and daughter of the man the center is named after, told WANE 15 the advisory board did not know about the latest closure until way after it happened.
“The staff called me and said, ‘did you know they’re trying to close your daddy’s center,'” Dortch said.
After learning about the closure, Dortch contacted three councilmembers — Glynn Hines, Michelle Chambers and Sharon Tucker — to discuss what happened.
Those discussions led to council members grilling McDaniel about the Jennings Center Tuesday night.
“I told you face-to-face [and] man-to-man: I’m pissed,” Councilman Hines said to McDaniel.
“I am offended. I am upset. I am disappointed in you as a leader who I have great respect for,” Councilwoman Chambers said.
Councilwoman Tucker also expressed her disapproval at how the situation played out.
Children registered at the Jennings Center and available staff have all been transferred to Weisser Park Youth Center since it is a bigger building that can better accommodate the combined staff and kids, McDaniel said.
During Tuesday’s meeting, McDaniel took responsibility for the lack of communication on the closing of the center and said he ultimately wants to see it open.
WANE 15 caught up with McDaniel on Wednesday to get more clarity on the situation. He shared that the Jennings Center is probably only four or five people short of being fully staffed, but then there would be staffing issues at either Weisser Park or the McMillen Community Center if he kept the staff there.
He said between the three recreation centers, Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation is about 31 people short.
McDaniel added that Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation has worked harder than ever to hire people, including raising pay to $15 an hour, but officials cannot seem to find a solution.
“We’re hoping that our community sees this report plus others and says ‘Hey, you know what? Working at the Parks Department, working at one of these youth centers would be a great, fun time,’” McDaniel said. “Come out and join up and apply for us, and we’d like to have as many applicants as possible to fill all these positions.”
McDaniel cannot point to a single issue causing staffing issues that have lingered since the pandemic hit and added that if they could pinpoint the problem, they would probably have discovered a solution.
While McDaniel said he had not heard a single complaint about the Jennings Center not being open prior to last night, he told WANE 15 that does not mean it is not still a problem they would like to fix.
McDaniel said Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation will work with any people or group when it comes to finding a creative way to fix the issue and get the Jennings Center opened again.
“We would like to open up all of our centers and provide that to the community just for the fact that this is what we do, and we want to prove that to our community,” McDaniel said. “Our centers are there for the kids and the people in the community and when we’re not able to open it or have it operational, we think it’s hurting the kids.”