Phoenix South Mountain Kroc Center
A place to create dreams in South Phoenix
By Christin Davis
If you find yourself flying over Phoenix, look down. The world’s largest Salvation Army shield—46- by 54-feet—bursts off the roof of the South Mountain Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center, a new $79 million, 147,000-square-foot facility spanning 15 acres in South Phoenix.
Once considered “the south side,” The Salvation Army has been present in South Mountain since 1967. Ted McClure remembers it well. At 15, he left an Oklahoma town of 753 people and arrived in South Mountain in 1969, where the high school alone had 2,300 students.
“It was a culture shock, and The Salvation Army was a place of refuge for me,” McClure said. When he was cut from the high school basketball team, the coach told him to practice. He did—at the Broadway Youth and Family Center (later renamed the South Mountain Youth Center) that opened in 1968, where he played on the church’s league team. The following year, McClure made the school basketball team and started.
“You can’t see the result of prevention; it can’t be measured, but Joan Kroc got it,” said Commissioner Joe Noland, who began the Army’s work in South Mountain with his wife, Commissioner Doris Noland. “Vision—those who see through the invisible and do the impossible. Do you see it today?”
Now an independent business owner in the area, McClure spent the last eight years as the chairman of the Kroc Center Advisory Council, working to replace the former youth center with a Kroc Center—one of seven in the Western Territory.
In 1998, Joan Kroc, widow of McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc, donated $80 million to build the first Salvation Army Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center in San Diego, Calif. She wanted all people to have recreational, educational and cultural arts opportunities. The center opened in June 2002, and just over a year later, in October 2003, Kroc left a $1.5 billion bequest to The Salvation Army to build similar community centers around the country. South Mountain received $64 million from the Kroc grant and endowment and raised an additional $15 million locally.
“The Salvation Army touched my heart with the love of God; I know Christ is working through this place, and that’s why I give back,” McClure said. “The Army has done for me the eye of a needle what they have done and are about to do for this community.”
Just five minutes from downtown Phoenix, across the dried out Rio Salado, South Mountain experienced development in the early 2000s as citrus groves and flower fields were turned into housing developments and commercial properties. Yet, it remains an area of need with a median household income of $50,000, 27 percent of children in the county considered food insecure (lacking access to enough food to fully meet basic needs at all times), and an incarceration rate that’s five times the national average. A high police presence monitors four prominent gangs that vie for control of the drug trade, and the center itself is surrounded by graffiti-riddled auto body shops.
Majors Guy and Denise Hawk, Kroc Center administrators, arrived here in 2004, just as Kroc Center applications were due across the nation. While operating the corps and youth center, known for its volleyball, basketball and boxing, the Hawks later received word that Phoenix would receive a Kroc grant and the pair began the process to opening the new facility.
“With the old place coming down, there was a lot of anxiety in the community over what would come,” Denise Hawk said. “We’ve made it clear that we’re not going to change; we’re just adding more.”
As the 21st of 27 Kroc Centers in the nation, the South Mountain Kroc Center features three multipurpose sports fields, a 35-foot rock wall, a 350-seat Broadway-style theater, game and party rooms, a child watch center, a commercial kitchen that can produce 1,000 meals per setting, a multipurpose room, three NBA-regulation basketball courts, a 0.8-mile walking track, two boxing rings, a 5,000-square-foot fitness studio and group exercise room, family service and administrative offices, classrooms, a library, a computer lab, a wellness center, and the largest indoor aquatics center in Arizona.
The new center was physically built around the original facility, which only last November was razed to be turned into parking. Overseen by project manager Dan Hinkson, construction began in August 2010 by Haydon Building Corp., with coordination by Sigma Contracting, architecture by BRS, and design by Dick & Fritsche Design Group.
“This is a point of pride for the entire city of Phoenix and the state of Arizona; it’s the best facility of its kind in the state,” said Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, who also thanked the Army for providing so many jobs during construction and another 150 now that the center is open.
Stanton recognized that in South Mountain, recreational opportunities are paramount. In focus groups with local residents, the Army discovered a desire for even more gymnasium space. It subsequently scrapped plans for a competition pool to build an extra NBA-regulation gym for a total of three side-by-side courts.
“We have history,” Guy Hawk said. “The last basketball game in the old center, where the Phoenix Suns first practiced, was like homecoming with alumni from the last 40 years coming to play.” The history was preserved as Kroc Center donors received a plaque made from the old court floor.
Alongside sports, education is critical in the new center’s programming. “I believe education is the logical way forward for anyone,” said Jim Armstrong of the Armstrong Family Foundation, which gave generously to the Kroc Center. “Here—if you get your schoolwork done, you can play in the backyard. Well, just look at the backyard.”
Armstrong learned of The Salvation Army when his daughter tutored at the former youth center with Arizona State University, a partnership that continues today. The Armstrong Family Foundation built and endowed the Armstrong Family Learning Center, and endowed a scholarship fund based on need for those in a 2.5-mile radius of the Kroc Center.
Beyond sports and education, family is the cornerstone of the Phoenix South Mountain Kroc Center. The Hawks said they are deliberate about bringing families together to ensure the center is helping to strengthen families. In a program at the school across the street, Rose Linda Elementary, the Army distributes coffee and information about the Kroc Center during school drop-off. The school—led by principal Irene Lopez, who also serves on the Kroc Center’s Advisory Council—hosted a book drive for the center’s library that resulted in over 1,000 new books.
At its core, this center operates on The Salvation Army’s credence of “Heart to God, Hand to Man.”
“We’re striving to make sure the mission is not lost,” Guy Hawk said. “When you walk in the door, you’ll know the essence of who we are.” The mission statement of The Salvation Army runs along the wall above the check-in point, and a screen displays Salvation Army news from around the world. Members of the corps and community wrote prayers and Scripture on the foundational walls of the performing arts theater. In the mission services room, visitors can learn about the Army and its various aspects of ministry and service.
Judy McManus, mission services room attendant, began training at the Kroc Center the day after retiring in April. “I had to be part of this…it’s a family-like atmosphere,” she said. “Kids and parents alike have been talking about this place, not just in South Phoenix, but in the whole valley.”
Following a public dedication before 800 people and a community fair attended by more than 4,000 people, the Phoenix South Mountain Kroc Center opened its doors May 21 with 1,500 members.
“For some, when their children are born, they see barriers rather than plans and opportunities,” Colonel Dave Hudson, Western Territory chief secretary, said during the public dedication. “Kroc dreamed of constructing and replicating centers across the country to change that, to give kids a chance to have dreams fulfilled.
“Kroc Centers aren’t just the place where dreams are made,” Hudson said, “they are where the dreams are created, too.”