At the beginning of May, West Chester's Charles A. Melton Arts and Education Center, better known to its neighbors as just the community center, held a basketball tournament for middle-school-age boys.

Two weeks ago, it held another tourney for older boys.

Once a staple at the center in the borough's East End, the tournaments were the first in several years. They mark another step in the center's reorganization effort after years of financial and other woes.

"It was great to see the tournaments," said Marvin Porter, an East End resident and community activist who is among those leading the effort to right the center, which has long played a key role in the borough's African American community.

The center's board of directors, with many new faces, has been trying for the last 21/2 years to get the center "off the up-and-down roller coaster ride it's been on" Porter said.

Not only has the board dealt with unpaid bills, but the center's physical plant, which includes a meeting room of nearly 10,000 square feet downstairs and a gym upstairs, is beginning to show its more than 70 years of service.

Groundbreaking for the center, the dream of Leslie Pinckney Hill, president of Cheyney State Teachers College, was held in 1934. Hill wanted a institution that addressed the needs of citizens marginalized because of economic status, gender or race.

As a major step in making the center fiscally sound, the board is seeking as many sources of funding as possible to balance a budget that is optimistically anticipated at $150,000 for this year.

The center has only a part-time administrative assistant on its payroll - other help comes from volunteers - but upkeep on the 50,000-square-foot center continues to rise. And there's the cost of expanding programs.

"Ten years, ago the center was in pretty good shape," said Deborah Sahjawani, a volunteer who has stepped in to help direct the center's finances. "Then it fell on hard times."

Sahjawani said the center still had some debt, but declined to say how much. She said bills were being paid in a more timely fashion now.

"We're on the right track," she continued. "People are saying we want a community center, not just for the African American community but for all. With the YMCA moving out of the borough we need this place."

A small trust fund, established in the 1970s, does provide some income, she said. That and gifts from individuals and businesses provide most of the operating funds. Sahjawani wants to see the center renew its charitable organization certificate and become eligible for United Way money.

She said the board was excited about a number of the center's programs, particularly the after-school tutoring classes provided by volunteers. An SAT prep course that was offered for five Saturdays at $10 drew 17 students, she points out.

"On any given day we could have one to 12 kids in the after-school program," said Carmen Lesesne, who works with the students. "We're trying to work more closely with the West Chester Area School District. It involves privacy issues."

The center, whose entrance is on East Miner Street, opens daily at 1 p.m. Sahjawani would like to see mornings filled with activities for retirees.

With the YMCA moving to West Goshen, the center has had discussions with the West Chester Recreation Department about using the center and its 4.5 acres for programs. There also have been discussions with the West Chester University about offering offer an arts and theater program at the center.

Porter's ultimate dream would be to turn the center's nonoperating outdoor pool into a water park. It's built over springs that have caused problems over the years.

"Somebody said a pool and water slides would take about $1 million," Sahjawani said. "But if somebody would like to give us one million, we'd take it."

Contact staff writer Don Beideman at 610-701-7613 or dbeideman@phillynews.com.