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Wider message: Leipsic United Methodist celebrates successful community center

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    Kristen Pickens, director of the center.

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    A young basketball player in the gym. The Leipsic Community Center, which offers a variety of programs and services for Leipsic and the entire Putnam County, in Leipsic, Ohio on July 30, 2018.

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    The front door to the Leipsic Community Center on Main Street in Leipsic.

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    A train rumble across Main Street, just east of the Leipsic Community Center on Main Street in Leipsic.

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    The Leipsic Community Center on Main Street in Leipsic.

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    The advantage of working in front of the windows along Main Street, says Center director Kristen Pickens [not pictured], is that it has a stron wi-fi signal.

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    A youth center, with air hockey, foosball, and several types of video games, just for kids grades 6-12.

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LEIPSIC, Ohio — Since the grand opening of a $6 million community center in Leipsic, Ohio, drew enough gawkers to shut down a country highway last year, its director, Kristen Pickens, has found herself answering one question more than any other: Have things calmed down yet?

“It has not calmed down yet,” Mrs. Pickens said with a laugh. “That is perfectly fine.”

The Leipsic Community Center opened its doors a year ago this weekend on Main Street of its namesake village in Putnam County. An open house between noon and 4 p.m. Sunday marks the occasion. Its doors have remained in near constant motion in the months since its debut, with Mrs. Pickens and her staff logging more than 26,000 visits from patrons who drop by to take a class, shoot some baskets, visit the clinic or just hang out.

It’s 34,000 square feet of community-focused space that locals agree could easily be expected of a much larger community. So how did it wind up in a village of just more than 2,000?

That credit goes to the nearby Leipsic United Methodist Church.

WATCH: Kristen Pickens touts the advantages of the Leipsic Community Center

“The church for so long has been inside the building,” Pastor Laurie Beaty said. “To be able to bring the message of Jesus Christ into people’s lives, we have to build relationships. ... I think the church has told the world about Jesus for many years. The center gives us an opportunity to be the hands and the feet of Christ for the world."

Relationships are both the inspiration and the heart of the Leipsic Community Center, which, in some ways, came as a gift from church to community. The congregation was able to finance it through a trust willed to the church by a deceased member, said Pastor Beaty, who arrived at the church after the center opened, and Karl Simon, a congregant who’s been involved since the project’s earliest days.

While the church does have a hand in operating the center, supplying six of nine board members to the nonprofit that runs it, it maintains a relatively light touch.

Pastor Beaty and Mr. Simon describe the religious messaging as subtle: Visitors can expect prayers before the monthly community meal organized by area churches, for example.

Mrs. Pickens, who is not a member of Leipsic United Methodist Church, sees the church-community connection being stronger in action than in word.

“What we do here has a religious message, whether people realize it or not,” she said. “What we’re doing here is making a change that I think He would want.”

That change is readily apparent to those with ties to the village and to the community center. It’s visible, in some ways, as Mr. Simon has noticed of a downtown that’s grown busier since the two-story center opened. But in other ways it’s less tangible.

“I think there’s a lot of pride in the community because of the civic center,” Jim Carpenter, 64, said. “I think we’re a lot of more united and there’s a lot more pride in our town.”

Mr. Carpenter is a regular at the community center, where he walks the elevated track in the gymnasium three or four times a week. He shifted his routine from the local streets to the center once it opened, he said, appreciating both that it’s indoors and that it’s full of friendly faces.

“I’ve met new friends here,” he said.

Mr. Carpenter isn’t the only one who’s forged new relationships at the venue. Mrs. Pickens thinks of the cluster of card-players who meet for games at the tables at the top of the stairs; they didn’t know each other before the center opened. Neither did a pair of knitters, one who was coming one a day of the week and the other another day of the week, until staff suggested they sync their schedules. Now they knit together.

“It’s definitely increased the community aspect, made people closer. It’s really neat to see,” Mrs. Pickens said. “We have a gentlemen here whose wife passed away, and he comes here now and he eats lunch with our staff. That wouldn’t happen if we were not here.”

The Leipsic Community Center meets a wide variety of needs in the village: Simply put, it’s a gathering place in a rural community that doesn’t have the slew of coffee shops and other spaces that are available in bigger cities. A free monthly clinic serves the uninsured and underinsured in the community, a staffed youth center equipped with game consoles, air hockey and foosball that presents a safe space for middle and high school students to hang out.

There are also daily classes — more than 500 offered in the center’s first year — that cover a wide variety of topics, ranging from computer skills to cooking to art to exercise.

To enroll in classes like these, or to participate in activities like the youth basketball league that’s proved especially popular in the center’s first year, might previously have required a resident to to head outside Leipsic, to Lima, perhaps, or Findlay, Mrs. Pickens said. Now Leipsic has become a destination in itself: In counting more than 4,000 patrons, Mrs. Pickens said, its membership rolls more than doubles the population of the village.

Membership is free. Admission to classes and activities is as low as $3 for an exercise class.

Operational costs are covered primarily by grants and donations. Leipsic United Methodist Church contributes too as part of its missions giving, Pastor Beaty said.

Though the funds that the church had available through the trust were not designated for a specific purpose, Pastor Beaty and Mr. Simon said they feel the community-oriented vision of the center is in line with the interests of the donor, whose family is well-known for their support of the local community. 

While the congregation had long toyed with the idea of a youth or community center, even purchasing land outside of the village at one point with an eye toward possible construction, plans began to come together more seriously in 2014, Mr. Simon said.

He was part of a 10-person team that began to draw up plans for a space that had by then become available on Main Street. They broke ground in 2016, opened in 2017, and, as they look toward their first anniversary, have been happy with the results.

“There’s a lot of big communities that don’t have something like this,” Mr. Simon said. “We think of it as a crown jewel.” 

An anniversary celebration runs noon to 4 p.m. at the Leipsic Community Center, 120 E. Main St. A barbecue chicken dinner ends at 2 p.m.

Contact Nicki Gorny at ngorny@theblade.com or 419-724-6133.

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