"It's been a long time coming."

Those words from the famous Sam Cooke song, "A Change is Gonna Come," were spoken by several people in Smith River on Monday as school staff, students and community members celebrated the grand opening of the Smith River Community Gymnasium.

"It has been at least 15 years since we have had a true home game," said Smith River Principal Paige Swan Monday after a noon assembly. "Tonight at 4 p.m. is our first home game, and it means everything. This is a great example of a community project. This is our latestexample of our community coming together for a common effort."

The effort, Swan said, was centered squarely around the 245 students at Smith River Elementary School.

"Students are what this building is all about," Swan told the all-school assembly. "When we don't have students in here, there isn't really much reason to have a building. When you, the students, come in, the building really comes alive."

The idea for the gym was born in 2004, when then-volleyball coach Elaine Fallgren became frustrated with the gym/cafeteria where her team played. Players had to serve from outside the double doors and parents had to watch the action from the stage or through the doorway.

"What we are celebrating today is hardly the beginning of this project," Swan noted. "In fact, this step has been years in the making."

Nine years, $2.8 million dollars and countless hours of planning and fundraising later, Smith River has finally reached its goal.

"You have achieved a monumental task," said county Supervisor Mike Sullivan. "They said it couldn't be built, they said it would be too expensive, they said it would take too long, but here we are today. Congratulations, you have done it. You now have the nicest gym in Del Norte County. This place is phenomenal."

The amount of effort that went into the new gym was not lost on the students, many of whom participated in fundraising efforts over the years.

"We would like to thank all the people who donated time, money and helped build the gym," said sixth grade student Seth Lee. "The gym is a dream come true for the Smith River Wildcats."

None of the current students were enrolled at Smith River in 2004, and many of them were not yet born.

"I was in preschool when we started this project and am currently in eighth grade," said Smith River student Fatina Valasco to the assembly. "All the hard work has paid off."

The Wildcats also extended their gratitude to Smith River Baptist Church, where the basketball teams have been playing for over a decade.

"I wanted to pass a very special thank you to Steve Alexander at the Smith River Baptist Church, for allowing us to play our home games there for 15 years, without charging us," Swan told the crowd.

Now, the community has a new home for athletics. Swan said that in addition to the school activities held in the new arena, the gym will serve as the recreation department for the town.

It's been a long time coming - but change has come.

Reach Michael Zogg at mzogg@triplicate.com.