Norwich files tax foreclosure action on defunct Martin Luther King Center

The city of Norwich has started tax foreclosure action on the former Martin Luther King Jr. Center, which closed several years ago amid financial difficulties and lack of volunteer managers. The building at 21 Fairmount St. is showing signs of neglect, with an overgrown yard, overflowing garbage can and vines climbing the side walls and porch.  (Claire Bessette/The Day)
The city of Norwich has started tax foreclosure action on the former Martin Luther King Jr. Center, which closed several years ago amid financial difficulties and lack of volunteer managers. The building at 21 Fairmount St. is showing signs of neglect, with an overgrown yard, overflowing garbage can and vines climbing the side walls and porch. (Claire Bessette/The Day)

Norwich — With its nonprofit status expired and property taxes now topping $20,000, the city has started foreclosure action on the defunct and shuttered Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center at 21 Fairmount St.

The youth center, which was established in 1967, has had a long history of ups and downs, tied mainly to funding woes, political infighting in decades past, lack of volunteers and mounting costs.

The final chapter closed in December 2013, when the last remaining board member, M. Garfield Rucker, told the few families who used the center’s small food pantry to clean the place out. He called Norwich Public Utilities and asked them to shut off the power and utilities. The bill had escalated past $600, with no steady income, Rucker, who had dedicated many years to the center, said at the time.

He used a surprise grant from the William W. Backus Hospital to pay the outstanding utility and other bills and let the building go dark.

Days later, Rucker returned to check on the building and was disheartened to find a smashed window in the front door and interior damage throughout the building. Police quickly apprehended six youths responsible for the damage — some of whom had attended programs at the center — but Rucker declined to file charges.

Contacted Thursday about the foreclosure action filed in Norwich land records, Rucker was resigned. “They can do what they have to do,” he said. There’s nobody left on the defunct former board of directors to respond to the summons, Rucker said.

City Assessor Donna Ralston said the center’s tax exempt status — which required renewal every four years — was due in 2013. She sent a letter to the center along with the renewal form in September 2013. She sent a reminder letter on Dec. 16 of that year, enclosing a second renewal form. She received no response, she said.

Once the tax exempt status was revoked, taxes started to accrue on the property assessed at $138,100. Attorney Aimee Wickless, handling the city’s foreclosure action, said the bill now stands at $20,292. She filed foreclosure action in New London Superior Court on Oct. 20.

Wickless said there are no other creditors after the city. If the foreclosure goes forward, the judge would have to decide if the city should be allowed to take possession of the property or if it should be auctioned.

The 1910 building, which looks like a large house, shows signs of neglect, with peeling paint, vines climbing the side walls and porch and overgrown weeds in the lower yard that once hosted youth picnics. A bike rack is pushed up against the front porch and a small overfull garbage can sits near the sidewalk.

“It's sad that these nonprofits have such difficulty,” Mayor Deberey Hinchey said. “I don't know what the answer is for something like the Martin Luther King Center, which did great things.”

Hinchey will put the center on a list of blighted buildings discussed weekly by a committee of city officials. City Manager John Salomone took a look at the building after learning of the pending foreclosure. Salomone said he will ask city police to pay special attention to it on patrols in the neighborhood.

Norwich resident David Holland, however, is not ready to abandon hope for the center where he grew up. Holland said it’s an embarrassment to the city to have the still bright and colorful “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center” sign hanging from the front porch, seeming to invite passersby to enter.

Holland is approaching friends and hopes to come up with a plan soon to revive the King Center to once again host programs, after-school tutoring and the types of field trips Holland recalls fondly from his own youth.

“When I was a kid, I never would have gone to the Basketball Hall of Fame or Fenway Park if it had not been for that center,” Holland said.

c.bessette@theday.com

The yard of the former Martin Luther King Jr. Center, which closed several years ago amid financial difficulties and lack of volunteer managers, is overgrown. The city of Norwich has started tax foreclosure action on the building at 21 Fairmount St.  (Claire Bessette/The Day)
The yard of the former Martin Luther King Jr. Center, which closed several years ago amid financial difficulties and lack of volunteer managers, is overgrown. The city of Norwich has started tax foreclosure action on the building at 21 Fairmount St. (Claire Bessette/The Day)

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