EL RIO — For the more than 8,000 residents in this tiny hamlet east of Oxnard, there are few options when it comes to finding a place to meet, play or just let off some steam.
The town's sole park is a postage-stamp-size strip with an asphalt basketball court--all located across from the Buckhorn Saloon II. School playgrounds are usually jammed on the weekends with families and Little League players who have no other place to have fun.
That's why building a community gymnasium--a place for students and adults to shoot hoops, wrestle, practice gymnastics and possibly volleyball, conduct meetings and even do homework--means so much, residents say.
The struggle to build the gym has been an exercise in persistence that has spanned more than two decades.
"We all wish there was somewhere for us to go. Something for us to do. We never had that," said 30-year-old Roseann Cruz, an El Rio schools graduate who has a son entering kindergarten this fall.
After a gym bond measure's devastating defeat at the ballot box in 1974, a scramble for money and a feisty battle with the state, El Rio residents are close to achieving their goal of building a gym at Rio Del Valle junior high school on Cortez Street.
Although the last hurdle--funding from the government--is still uncertain, district officials have hired architects and consulted with soil engineers as if the gym's construction were to begin in the spring.
On a recent overcast day, 63-year-old school district trustee Ernest Almanza and a district administrator surveyed a section of Rio Del Valle School where the gym could be built.
"I'm a dreamer. Hopefully we'll have enough to build it the way I would like to see it," said Almanza, who along with the administrator pointed at a tree, a molehill and wrinkled paper on the field to indicate the possible boundaries of the new gym.
What school district officials and residents envision is a gym that seats more than 1,000 people. It would encompass 12,500 square feet, big enough to accommodate graduation ceremonies if it rained, as it did two years ago.
During the school day, physical education students would scramble out on the courts. A youth club would occupy the place in the afternoon for athletic activities. Adults in basketball leagues would compete in the evening.
In addition, a separate conference room could be used for programs on literacy and citizenship. The school district is also thinking of creating an after-school homework area, where students could have access to computers.
The gym would come with a price tag of about $1.8 million. Although the school district already has $1 million stashed away after four years of fund-raising, it has applied for $825,000 in matching funds from the state.
The dream of a gym began more than two decades ago. Although Rio Mesa High School allowed El Rio residents to use its gym on occasion, it became increasingly unavailable as girls' sports increased in popularity.
El Rio school district and community leaders wanted a gym for the rest of the community. The district decided it would pursue a bond measure to raise the money. In spring of 1974, the Rio School District went out for a $850,000 bond measure. The district figured it could raise the additional money to build a $1.2-million gym.
In the election, 54% of El Rio voters supported the measure. But it was not enough to meet the two-thirds majority required for bond passage.
"Oh man, I was sick," Almanza said, recalling the defeat. "I kind of put myself down because I didn't feel like I did enough."
Later he discovered that other gym supporters also failed to live up to promises of walking precincts to rally community support.
After the defeat, the school district decided not to pursue another bond measure for the gym. The idea languished until four years ago, when Oxnard's La Colonia, a low-income neighborhood, built its own gym.
"We got to talking again," Almanza said. "When the city of Oxnard built theirs in La Colonia, we said, 'Why can't we do that for us?' "
As an unincorporated community, El Rio does not have its own city government to generate funds. So community leaders turned to County Supervisor John Flynn to help with private fund-raising and lining up government grants.
"When El Rio became part of my district about five years ago, we wanted to try and improve the services to the area as much as possible," Flynn said during an interview last year. "In El Rio, we've done that by working closely with the school district. The gym will be built on school district land."
By having fund-raisers, such as a screening of "Mi Familia" at the Edwards Cinemas in Camarillo, a number of Guns and Hoses basketball games--police officers against firefighters--and by obtaining money from community development grants, the school district and county have been able to raise $1 million.
"Financially, this is not easy," Flynn said. "That's kind of an isolated community." To raise the rest of the money, the community has turned to the state.