NEW BUFFALO — A local nonprofit has worked behind the scenes for the last four years in an effort to unite and strengthen the Harbor Country communities through health and wellness.

Now, those planning to open a Harbor Country Community Center have launched a survey to find specific community needs. Next, they plan to answer those needs by opening the center and launching programming for the region of Southwest Michigan just above the Indiana state line.

According to a June 21 press release, the Harbor Country Community Center survey is open until Labor Day weekend, and members of the community are invited to make their needs known by participating at https://harborcountrycommunity center.org/.

“This is the first step in fulfilling a community center concept that has existed for over a decade. However, a dedicated team has been working hard to make it happen the last four years,” Katie Maroney, Harbor Country Community Center Community leader, said.

“Our region could really use more services and things to do, especially for families, seniors and our area workforce. Most think our region’s number one resource is the lake and tourism, but it’s really the people. It’s the teachers, the baristas, the service and hospitality workers, the grocery store clerks, the emergency personnel, the residents and so on. Over time, our area has become more divided – very rarely are we seeing collaborative efforts to help address community needs. We hope that this project will inspire change,” she stated.

After moving back to her hometown of New Buffalo in 2013, Maroney opened a 24-hour gym. Immediately after, she began to notice the lack of services and things to do in the region. So she joined several boards, hoping to change that. In the fall of 2018, The Pokagon Fund was selected for a Rural Economic Development Cohort by the Council of Michigan Foundations (CMF) and the Community Economic Development Association of Michigan (CEDAM). They conducted the Harbor Country Community Needs Assessment, which identified affordable housing, broadband internet, a community center and jobs as four areas of need in the region. Former Pokagon Fund Executive Director Janet Cocciarelli appointed Maroney as the community leader to make meeting these needs a reality.

But the June 21 press release noted that jumping from concept to reality is difficult without a key ingredient – experience. For that, Harbor Country Community Center turned to the YMCA of Greater Michiana. YMCA representatives have worked with Maroney’s team and other stakeholders creating committees, hosting meetings and giving presentations.

“The YMCA of Greater Michiana has been a founding and steadfast community partner throughout this entire project,” Maroney said. “Their patience and persistence with this project are truly inspiring. It is our goal that the Harbor Country Community Center will someday become the Harbor Country YMCA.”

Maroney’s current plans include building meaningful, lasting partnerships with New Buffalo, River Valley and Bridgman schools and organizations to fulfill the part of Harbor Country Community Center’s mission dedicated to cultivating a safe space for all ages to learn, grow and share together.

“We are not trying to replace any programs or activities, but rather help enhance existing offerings and fill any gaps to help all three school districts in any way that we can. The survey will really help us pinpoint the level of need in each community, so we welcome everyone to fill it out,” she said.

Apart from that, services and programs will revolve around community needs to strengthen the relationship between residents, visitors, municipalities and other organizations. Examples include a dire need for affordable daycare, childcare and healthcare. The survey will help determine where in the region this community center will be built and the scale of it, especially with amenities like a community pool being a top priority. But the vision expands beyond the walls of whatever structure is built.

“We intend to help establish more recreational sports opportunities for all ages, utilizing existing parks and facilities for additional programming and activities. Most importantly, we hope that this project will be a beacon and a catalyst for future opportunities, growth and collaborations within our region,” Maroney said.

In the meantime, organizers encourage everyone in the Harbor Country region to participate so a fair sample of what the community needs is represented across various categories. Abonmarche is conducting an Assessment & Feasibility Study specifically for a community center in the region. The first phase of this project is strictly for information gathering and community engagement, with the survey being open until Labor Day.

“This is an amazing opportunity for people to be heard, for their needs to be taken seriously and for all of us to unite to create something that will help enhance many people’s lives in our region,” Maroney said.

The fall and winter following the survey’s closing will mark the start of Steering Committee meetings to evaluate results and potential sites. Once a site is selected, Abonmarche will then begin the Feasibility Study, and the Harbor Country Community Center will begin fundraising and introducing programs in 2023 with the help of the YMCA of Greater Michiana.

“The YMCA is excited to continue collaborating with Katie Maroney and her team with the Harbor Country Community Center for this project. We know there is a need for a community center in New Buffalo and the surrounding area and look forward to the community’s response to this survey and the collective impact we will make on the region,” said Mark Weber, chief executive officer of the YMCA of Greater Michiana.

To learn more about the Harbor Country Community Center’s mission and follow the project, visit their website at https://harborcountry communitycenter.org/, their Facebook or their Instagram.

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