Other than garden, Westside Center’s future still unclear
Ideas sought as Mar. 31 deadline looms

       The Westside Community Center apparently will have a community garden soon. It will probably also have a plan that shows the garden, as well as additional parking and landscaping that the center might be able to afford someday.

District 3 City Councilmember Sean Paige (standing) was joined by City Parks' Recreation Services Division Manager Ron Cousar at the Westside Community meeting Jan 13.
Westside Pioneer photo

       Beyond that, the future of the facility at the former Buena Vista school, 1628 W. Bijou St., remains uncertain past March 31.
       That's the final day that City Council has guaranteed funding to keep the center's doors open.
       Two meetings this week talked about what could happen there. The first, Jan. 11, revealed that a volunteer citizen group, called the West Agricultural Learning Center (WALC), is looking for plot-renters, is fundraising to cover its start-up costs and is planning to get a raised-bed garden going in the middle-north part of the former school playground as early as this month.
       WALC leaders Karen Fleming, Sherry Bennett and William Halliburton indicated a wish to keep West open, tying the garden's “cross-cultural” efforts with art- oriented center activities, but if not, the garden would still have access to on-site water (from City Parks, reimbursable by WALC) and could operate independently.
       WALC's plans call for 25 plots of 20 by 20 feet.
       The second meeting, led by City Council member Sean Paige Jan. 13, was an attempt to gather ideas from citizens about how to save West from closure. Based on information from City Parks Recreational Director Ron Cousar, the facility costs $24,000 a month to run. So, from April through December, $216,000 would be needed to keep it afloat, unless it's run differently somehow.
       Paige said he was unsure what would happen if the city decides it would close the center - if one or more buildings might even be boarded up. Not discussed, but previously announced by City Parks is an intent to retain the Billie Spielman Center in the easternmost of the 2.8-acre property's three buildings.
       Informed that currently the city subsidizes 80 percent of the community center's costs, the District 3 City Councilmember said he'd like to see that ratio reversed. In such a scenario, with a “more self-sustaining model,” he could then go to a major foundation and possibly get a grant to cover the final 20 percent, he said.
       One possibility he's heard of would involve a major church taking over much of the center's space. But smaller users, such as art or dance class providers, would still be welcome.
       West's set-up is similar to that of the other three city community centers, all of which are slated for closure after March as a result of city budget cutbacks in 2010. Often open seven days a week, the center offers a variety of programs, classes, trips and activities for people of different ages.
       Paige didn't offer much financial hope for the city in the immediate future, saying that “we're looking at cuts similar to these [in 2010] next year.” It may be two to three years before the economy rebounds enough that sales tax earnings - the city's chief source of income - start improving, he predicted.
       Asked what would happen if some progress is made by the end of March but not enough to cover the whole cost of keeping the center going, Paige said it would depend on the situation. But he did say it was possible that “I could go to my colleagues and say, 'We're this close, can you give us another month?'”
       Some people asked to see cost details so as to better understand where savings could occur at the Westside Center.

Sarah Bryarly of City Parks talks to a group of about 50 at the Jan. 11 meeting at the Westside Center.
Westside Pioneer photo

       Other ideas from the roughly 75 attendees at the meeting included greater use of volunteers, an indoor soccer league, Bingo games and advertising banners. One person expressed skepticism about the city's financial situation, indicating that instead of closing centers the city should cut things like letting employees have personal use of city-owned vehicles.
       Paige did not deny there is probably still some waste, but noted that the city has also “cut a lot.”
       The development plan for the center would be tied in with a rezoning from the current R-2 zone to a type called Public Facility. The zone/plan would include a list of allowable uses, to protect the neighborhood from activities that might cause problems, according to Steve Tuck of City Land Use Review.
       There is no money to implement any of the proposed parking or landscaping additions, but at least there would be a “master plan” showing a “commitment to the neighborhood,” said Chris Lieber of City Parks.
       Ironically, Paige was unaware of the reasons for the rezoning. When the plan was mentioned at his meeting two nights later, he scoffed at the idea and said it was unnecessary bureaucracy.
       At the Jan. 11 meeting, the city heard a few neighborhood criticisms about the center as it operates now. Vicky McLaughlin, who lives across the street, said she has been irritated by people smoking and continually parking on the street. So she was not pleased to hear that the city's parking plan for the center includes a variance request that would let on-street parking spaces count toward the total. Another neighbor, Mike Cooper, described kids driving their cars into the center's currently unsecured playground area at night and “doing donuts” on the gravel. He also was not impressed to learn that the city - when it has the money - would build curb and gutter on the property as part of a new parking lot while the streets bordering the center have curb and gutter that he said are falling apart.
       Karen Fleming of WALC attended both meetings. In response to a speaker who criticized wasteful city spending, Fleming said that “we need to get over the fact that we're angry at the city” and find ways to help keep the center going. “Let's be our own hero,” she said.
       For more information on the center, call 385-7920.

Westside Pioneer article