WEST ORANGE, NJ — Squeaking shoes, dribbling basketballs and children’s chatter now fill the once empty and dilapidated cavernous space next door to the West Orange Community House. After a decade of work and some setbacks, the Boys & Girls Club gymnasium on Main Street is finally open.

“It’s really a nice building, but I’m biased,” said Paul Cito, executive director of the Community House, whose vision for renovating the former theater into a gym has finally come to life.

The facility, located at 250 Main Street, opened quietly in February and hosts free drop-in basketball several days a week for children ages 12 to 17. Those who use the gym must register, adhere to the rules and are welcome to come and go. The hours for drop-in basketball are Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday from 12:15 p.m. and 3 p.m

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Although the venue is open for the youth, Cito cautions that it is not a childcare facility. Kids can enter and leave at will, he said.

“The kids have to fill out an application to be there and understand that this is a privilege,” Cito said. “We get them in there, teach them some manners and responsibilities” like picking up after themselves and following the rules, he said.

The gymnasium is a welcome addition to the downtown corridor, said Megan Brill, director of the Downtown West Orange Alliance. According to Brill, the more people who use the facility, the more likely they are to patronize other local businesses in the area.

“The Heart Of The Community House and their board has always been one of serving the children in our community,” Brill said. “With this new facility, they will be able to serve a lot more kids and a lot more families.”  

The addition of a newly renovated building in the heart of downtown also helps encourage other businesses and storefronts to improve their buildings and fill any vacancies, Brill added.

“It's really amazing what the community house was able to do with that huge space,” she said.  

For now, the gymnasium is designed to have one full-length basketball court that can be used as two practice courts and has a total of six baskets, much like a middle or high school gym. A newly built vestibule, paid for by a township grant, features restrooms, storage and a small lobby.

But that’s not the end of Cito’s vision for the facility. He is looking to install portable turf that can be rolled out and rolled back up so the space can also be used for soccer, a popular sport in West Orange. Cito said that a $40,000 price tag for the turf is hefty, but would allow the space more use and more partnerships with local organizations.

Cito is also looking into drop-down batting cages that can be safely stored above the court in the 45-foot high ceiling. A suspended batting cage could cost around $13,000, he said.

“The goal is to have a multi-use building,” said Cito. “It certainly serves basketball, but I’d be happier if it served more.”

In order to offset the costs there a dozen 3-foot-by-6-foot banner advertisements, like those hung in many school gyms, being sold. Interested parties should contact Cito directly at the West Orange Community House, 973-736-1282 ext. 17.