HAZLETON —Standing in a basement room of the former Most Precious Blood Elementary School, Tampa Bay Rays Manager Joe Maddon recalled growing up in Hazleton.
“Back when I was a kid, this was absolutely, without question, the best place in the United States to grow up … whether it was riding a bicycle to Correale Stadium … whether it was to participate at playgrounds. I was at Altmiller (Playground), I was an instructor at James Street (Playground) one time,” Maddon said.
He’s hopeful the community center he proposed as part of the Hazleton Integration Project a year and a half ago — the Hazleton One Community Center, which officially opened on Monday with a grand opening and ribbon cutting ceremony — will help to unify the community and return it to being a great place for kids to grow up.
“I really wanted to hopefully at some point create that same kind of environment for our kids. Obviously, the concern to me at that time was a disconnect among the community. … You could feel it,” Maddon told those in attendance.
Hazleton’s Latino population had rapidly grown over the past decade. Some longtime residents pointed to Hispanics — especially illegal immigrants — as the cause behind an uptick in violent crime and rising unemployment. A local law aimed at driving out illegal immigrants gave the city a reputation as being unwelcoming to any newcomers.
Maddon said that when he was in town over the 2010 Christmas holiday, “I really felt there was a push-back going on and if people did not embrace our Hispanic brothers and sisters, that this town would die a slow death. We needed a shot in the arm, we needed some new influence, and we got it. And now we’re bringing it all together in a very, very positive way.”
“Bringing the kids together, bringing them into this building, the parents are going to follow,” Maddon said. “After a while, all of that superficial craziness kind of goes away and, hopefully, we can set an example, not just for here in this town, but in outlying areas in Northeastern Pennsylvania.”
Mayor Joe Yannuzzi acknowledged in a speech he gave before Maddon’s that Hazleton a few years ago gained national attention for the Illegal Immigration Relief Act and was “characterized as an uncompromising and unwelcoming city.”
“The HIP project under Joe’s leadership has demonstrated to the nation that Hazleton is a compromising and welcoming city, a melting pot of nationalities and cultures,” Yannuzzi said.
State Sen. John Yudichak, D-Plymouth Township, noted Maddon won two Manager of the Year awards.
“But what he has managed here in the community of Hazleton — bringing together people of different cultures, different political perspectives, people that have different community interests — what he has managed here in the community of Hazleton is the best managing Joe Maddon’s ever done in his life,” Yudichak said.
Yudichak said many in the community “unfortunately get nostalgic and want to resist change, and they see change as perhaps a way to weaken our community. But in the history of the United States, change and the immigration story has always strengthened our nation.”
Bob Curry, president of the board of the Hazleton Integration Project, thanked all those who worked hard to make the center a reality.
“The hard work we have done to this point has obviously begun to pay off. But the even harder work of making a difference in the day-to-day lives of our citizens is just beginning. Today, I pledge to you on behalf of the entire HIP board that we will do everything in our power to make the most positive impact that we can in this community,” Curry said.
Curry introduced Eugenio Sosa as the executive director of the center, chosen from among about 30 candidates who applied.
Sosa called Monday a “day of great joy” and called the center a “dream come true.” He noted the Hazleton Area School District will provide free lunches to children at the center during the summer Monday through Friday and Hazleton Public Transit will make seven stops throughout the day at the center every day.
Curry noted that, so far, 150 children have registered for summer programs at the center.