Gov. Pat Quinn stood inside the auditorium of a sprawling new Salvation Army community center that officially opened in West Pullman Saturday and put into perspective the meaning of a new swimming pool, performing arts center, soccer field and other recreational outlets in the Far South Side neighborhood.
"This used to be, believe it or not, kind of a dumping area," Quinn told a crowd of residents, politicians and other dignitaries.
The 33-acre site at 1250 W. 119th St. was desolate just a few years ago, a visual marker of the long decline of a once-vibrant community that by the 1980s had dwindled into an afterthought 19 miles from Chicago's downtown area.
Then came the idea of the $160 million Ray and Joan Kroc Community Center — named after the founder of McDonald's and his wife after the estate of Joan Kroc contributed $109 million toward construction costs.
The state kicked in another $5 million to clean up the land before construction began, with the city and Chicago Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf also contributing.
As the crowd on Saturday visited the multi-purpose center that first broke ground in 2010, several attendees expressed hope that the center that will employ 200 people and offer job training clases could help end a cycle of violence that has lately plagued West Pullman.
"We have to understand, right now, that there's an epidemic of violence going on," Quinn said. "We want our young people coming up, boys and girls, young men and women, to see positive things, to do positive things, to have that opportunity to come together and make a difference."
The political importance of the opening could be gauged by the star power on hand, which besides Quinn included Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., city Treasurer Stephanie Neeley and several aldermen.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who's out of town this weekend, chimed in via a pre-recorded congratulatory message.
Though the center took a lot of time and effort to buld, Ald. Carrie Austin, 34th, who shepherded the project to completion, said she tried to stay focused on how the Salvation Army's involvement in the area could help West Pullman.
"They took on a community that was struggling, that needed hope, and they gave them hope," Austin said. "They transformed the lives, because in the construction of this building there was what, 220 construction jobs. That transformed some lives. For the employees that are here today, those are transformed lives."