ST. JOHNS — The transformation is almost complete.
Staff at the new Loft Legacy Teen Center in St. Johns are putting the final touches on the renovation of the former county juvenile detention center downtown. The center will reopen next week as a drop-in teen center, the first in the state to be opened in a former detention center, and funded through the court system.
Apache County Superior Court Judge Michael Latham saw an opportunity to put the resources formerly used in the juvenile justice system into something more positive and more useful for the youth of the community.
“The truth is ... we have had the Youth Council talking about a youth center forever,” he said in an interview earlier this spring.
The transformation is part of a reconfiguration of the juvenile justice system across the state. Since 2015, Apache, Navajo and Gila counties have closed their detention centers. The number of teens entering the juvenile justice system across the state has been declining for years.
Plus, running detention centers is a big expense for counties. When Judge Latham ordered the closure of the juvenile detention center in 2015, the county was paying over $1.2 million per year for an 11-bed facility that was empty for stretches of six weeks at a time.
Apache County is now sending kids with more serious problems to the Pinal County detention center. But most can be helped closer to home. Instead of sending kids to detention centers, counties are looking for ways to keep them in the community, and engaged.
That’s what the Loft Teen Center is for, and the center will be the first of its kind.
“Nobody’s doing what we’re doing. I don’t know if anyone in the whole country is doing this,” Latham said.
Now, instead of sitting empty, costing the county a bundle, the Loft will fill an important gap in the community.
The center will be staffed by employees from the county juvenile court system, but they will be there to offer support and guidance in a welcoming atmosphere. Staff involved in the operation of the teen center will not be handling cases with the justice system; their focus will only be running the Loft.
“Our kids need something to do after school and on weekends. It will be proactive, and help keep kids out of the system,” said Paul Hancock, director of Juvenile Court Services for Apache County.
The Teen Center is open to all kids who have graduated 8th grade but have not yet graduated high school, under age 20. There is no charge to use the facility, and it will be open every day. Hours will be 2-9 p.m. on school nights; noon to 11:30 p.m. on weekends.
The center will feature a lot of fun activities and cool technology. A technology space will provide Macintosh computers, a screen and green screen so students can produce and edit their own video, audio and photos. Video games, board games, air hockey, and a pool table are available in the main lounge. A music room provides instruments such as acoustic and electric guitars so students can learn to play and jam together. An enclosed outdoor courtyard offer outdoor recreation and a climbing wall.
And, there is internet access so students can finish their homework.
Remodeling the detention center has been a labor of love that began last spring. Court staff have devoted nearly all their time to the project, and Judge Latham has been personally very active in the design. He chose a style he calls “urban loft” for the interior. Open ceilings, a brick accent wall and bright colors give the new center a fun, hip feeling.
Latham has plans to expand the teen center model to other communities. Preliminary plans are under way for a center he hopes to open in Round Valley next year, with a third center slated for the Sanders area in the future.
The Loft Teen Center will open next week with a series of events. A ribbon cutting and dedication will be held Thursday, Sept. 28 at noon in front the center, which is located across the street from the Apache County Government Annex at 50 West Cleveland Street.
Two open house dates have been set to allow families and youth to check the center out. The first will be held on Thursday, immediately following the ribbon cutting from 1-6 p.m. A second open house is scheduled for Friday, Sept. 29, from 2-6 p.m.
The final event, scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 30, will be a grand opening for teens only from 5-11:30 p.m., with a dance starting at 9 p.m. Teens can enjoy a hamburger or hotdog meal from 6-7 p.m. and grand opening T-shirts will be handed out.