August 28, 2014 at 2:37 pm

Detroit to seek redevelopment bids for rec center where Joe Louis trained

Donyetta Hill, left, 32, and Juandrell Lewis, center, 30, both of Detroit, talk to Mayor Mike Duggan at the mayor's press conference on Thursday announcing plans regarding the Brewster Wheeler Recreation Center, where boxing champion Joe Louis once trained. (Todd McInturf / The Detroit News)

Detroit— The city announced Thursday it is looking for proposals to redevelop the long-shuttered Brewster Wheeler Recreation Center to potentially save it from being demolished.

The city’s Planning and Development Department has issued development guidelines for the 51,780-square-foot facility and 6.2-acre lot, city officials said.

The facility, which has been vacant since 2006, is where Joe Louis once trained in the basement.

“I want to see this building reused in a way that remembers what it meant to the Brewster neighborhood, Joe Louis (and) Leon Wheeler meant to the community,” Mayor Mike Duggan said. “I don’t know if we’re going to be successful or not, but the reason why we’re doing this is we’re going to give it our best effort (and) see what the proposals look like. If there’s any way to save this building, we’re going to.”

Originally known as the Central Community Center, the facility opened in 1929. Until 1945 it was run by Leon Wheeler, the city’s first black recreation worker, hired in 1919. He launched programs such as swimming, boxing, billiards, woodcraft, a glee club, tap dancing, track, tennis, drama and dancing.

In 1932, the Harlem Globetrotters played their first tour game there against the “Detroit AA” team assembled by Wheeler.

Doyle McBride, 80, said he hopes the facility is preserved to keep his memories of the place in which he once played. McBride watched Joe Louis train at the center and was on the first interracial swim team that won a state championship at Michigan State University.

“I hope we can really save and renovate Brewster because it has tremendous history,” McBride said.

Donyetta Hill, 32, said she doesn’t know what would have happened if she didn’t have the Brewster Wheeler Center growing up.

Hill said she was on her own by around 13 years old. The center is where she learned how to sing, swim and played other sports activities.

“This was the place I could come to feel comfortable and get off the street,” said Hill, who reached out to Joe Louis Jr. about saving the center. “(Children) need that direction in life. They need that attention. Our children are constantly being pushed to the streets.”

DNichols@detroitnews.com
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