COLUMBIA — A lively group gathered Thursday night in the basement of Calvary Baptist Church for the first meeting of the Worley Street Park Neighborhood Association.
About 20 to 25 people — including nine police officers assigned to the neighborhood — introduced themselves, most giving their addresses and how long they'd lived there. They also shared their feelings about the neighborhood. Some had been there for decades, others only for a few years.
A common theme ran throughout the introductions: Many residents said that though they love the neighborhood, there are things that could be better.
Neighbors raised concerns about gunshots, cars not obeying traffic laws and more.
Columbia Police Lt. Chris Kelley, a commander who oversees the city between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m., addressed those concerns and gave reports about what the police have seen around the neighborhood lately.
Kelley said that though there have been incidents with narcotics, drug dealing and prostitution in the area, the numbers are trending down. There were fewer calls and reports within the neighborhood in January through March than there were in the same months in 2010, he said.
Throughout the meeting, Kelley emphasized that Columbia police cannot fix the neighborhood's problems on their own; they need help from everyone who lives there. He said anyone who sees trouble should call and report it. Residents can report suspicious behavior anonymously. Reports help the police department track crime trends and identify trouble spots in the neighborhood.
Verna Laboy, who organized the meeting, said one of her goals in starting the Worley Street Park Neighborhood Association was building a bridge between the association and the police department. After the meeting, she said she was impressed by the officers' presence at the event.
After everyone's concerns were addressed, Laboy shifted the focus of the meeting to people's ideas for the future.
"What is your idea of a great neighborhood?" she asked. "What do you want to see?"
Laboy said that when she was in Chicago, a friend explained to her that the city's neighborhood associations formed around its parks. Inspired by how well that worked in Chicago, she got the idea to bring the system here and form the Worley Street Park Neighborhood Association around Worley Street Park.
"We have a little park, but we can make big things happen here," she said.
She said she would like to see Worley Street Park become a place for the neighborhood to hold festivals and host activities. She proposed starting evening walks or bicycle rides in the summer.
An hour after the meeting began, Laboy said anyone not interested in leading the association was free to leave. Few did, and when she asked those remaining who would help, hands went up across the room. People began stepping up almost immediately, passing out papers and volunteering to collect and distribute the group members' contact information.
After the meeting, Laboy said she was excited about how it had gone. "The energy was high and the support was incredible," she said.
Laboy said she was happy with the 10 people who will form the organization's leadership. "You don't need a big crowd to lay the foundation," she said.
That group will meet again in the next two weeks to complete the necessary paperwork and submit it to the Columbia City Council so the association can officially form. "And then we'll get busy dreaming," Laboy said.
Laboy said the turnout for the meeting was about what she expected it to be, and, overall, she's optimistic about the association's chances for continued formation and growth.
The Worley Street Park Neighborhood Association is the first started by Columbia's Neighborhood Association Revitalization Team, one of six action teams begun as part of the PedNet Coalition's Unite 4 Healthy Neighborhoods initiative, according to a previous Missourian report.
The action team, a small group that meets monthly, is co-chaired by Laboy and Bill Cantin, neighborhood response coordinator for the city's Office of Neighborhood Services. A key goal of the revitalization team is to strengthen neighborhood associations and begin new ones.