Hughes starts fund for Westside Center

       A January saga in which long-time Westside activist Dave Hughes took the lead culminated this week with him getting what he'd wanted from the city: a specific, reduced fundraising target for the beleagured Westside Community Center.

A Tai-Chi exercise class works out in the Westside Community Center gym Jan. 27. Participants pay $35 each for hour-long classes Monday and Wednesday nights for about six weeks.
Westside Pioneer photo

       According to figures finalized by Colorado Springs Parks Director Paul Butcher based on City Council comments Jan. 26, the center at 1628 W. Bijou St. needs $140,000 to stay in business for the remainder of the year after March 31.
       The previously anticipated expense for that span had been $216,000.
       The new number reflects not only program cuts and a greater reliance on volunteers starting in April, but the ability to plow center income directly back into the facility - which hadn't been the case before, according to West Director Brian Kates.
       In the fundraising campaign Hughes set up, donors can chip in with checks, cash or credit cards to the “Save Our Community Center Fund” in care of the non-profit Old Colorado City Historical Society (OCCHS). (A full-page ad on Page 7 of this issue provides details.)
       “It's a twist to have the Historical Society do it, but not too much,” Hughes said of the plan. “And we have a track record of working with the city, including the Bancroft Cabin upgrade in 2003.”
       Like the three other city-owned community centers around town, Westside's financial plight resulted from the city's 2010 budget cuts. In its first year at the former Buena Vista school site (after 17 years inside West Middle School), the center continues to offer programs, events, classes, meals, activities and a site for community meetings. About 50,000 people pass through its doors in an average year, based on past numbers.
       The most visible cut in trimming the Westside Center number down to $140,000 will be the elimination of the popular but costly Rock Ledge Ranch Early Childhood program, whose director, Mary LeBrecque, is retiring in April. The program costs about $45,000 a year but brings in only $15,000, Butcher said.
       Hughes, an OCCHS member and former president, convinced the society's executive board to take responsibility for the fund after it became clear that no other established entity could be found. City Councilmember Daryl Glenn had previously set up an online capability (the Pikes Peak Community Fund) for people wanting to donate to favored city services, but it has no mechanism for refunds - a functionality that Hughes believes is essential in case the Westside Center fund drive falls short.
       Hughes had first approached the Organization of Westside Neighbors (OWN), the city-recognized non-profit advocacy group for the Westside. But OWN President Welling Clark was reluctant to commit without studying the ramifcations and said this week he still needed more time to “investigate other alternatives (such as creating some form of trust or foundation) to receive and disburse donated funds.”
       Hughes' involvement started Jan. 13 when he attended a public meeting on the center, organized by City Councilmember Sean Paige. At the meeting, Hughes expressed dismay that City Parks did not present clearer financial details. Such would be needed to mount a fundraising campaign, he insisted.
       Shortly thereafter, it became known that Kates - who took on the Westside director's job this month in addition to continuing as director of the Meadows Park Community Center - had analyzed the Westside budget and thought he could pare it down. His ideas included reducing staff to one full-time position, trying to establish a “friends” group (modeled after Rock Ledge Ranch's Living History Association) and retaining “basic core services” in which “the community would be an equal player in running this place.”
       At that time, when the Westside Pioneer asked Butcher about Kates' ideas, he said his direction from council, as he understood it, was to run the Westside Center through March with basically the same staff and service levels as in 2009.
       Dissatisfied with that position, Hughes lobbied Butcher and Paige (whose Council District 3 takes in the center) and eventually talked to council during the Citizen Comments part of its Jan. 26 meeting. “Specifically I call on the city manager to instruct the parks director to get into the public's hands, including mine, an approved dollar figure that one of his lowest level staffers [Kates] has worked out at a much lower amount than the city first estimated was needed,” Hughes told council. “But I am told he can't give it to me or the public until the parks bureaucracy takes its sweet time 'reviewing' and approving his numbers. We are running out of time.”
       Also in his comments, Hughes revealed that a private foundation (which he later said he cannot yet identify), “may be willing to contribute substantially.”
       Urging city officials to call him soon, the 81-year-old retired Army colonel and long-time Westside leader expounded, “My cell phone is on 24/7, including at night, next to my bed and oxygen.”
       After Hughes finished speaking, Paige, along with Mayor Lionel Rivera, spoke favorably on his appeal.
       “You're going to have trouble raising money if you don't have a target to shoot for,” Paige observed.
       Rivera added, “If there are innovative ideas for rescuing the community centers, they should percolate to the top so we can look at them.”
       Interviewed later, Butcher said he took those comments as direction that “I didn't have to provide every service and I should come up with a plan that cuts some services but allows the center to stay open.”
       Now, he plans to apply some of the same type of analysis to the budgets of the other three community centers. Regarding Kates' work, Butcher said, “We're really pleased with that. We're sorry to lose some programs, but it will be good if we can keep the centers open.”
       Another hope for help for one or all of the centers could result from a request for proposals (RFP) that the city issued Dec. 29; those interested need to submit their plans by Feb. 26. The RFP seeks offers from the private sector (profit or non-profit) for ways to use the center space, “preferably” without giving up what is there now. “The objective of this RFP process is to solicit responses for operation of any or all of the community centers,” reads the RFP's Proposed Services/ Sub-mittal Requirements. “In this context, 'operations” includes providing programs and services appropriate for a target audience identified by the proposer, preferably comparable with services and programs now in existence.”
       Butcher said a pre-proposal conference Jan. 20 attracted six bidders with questions, although, he noted, that “in no way indicates interest.”

Westside Pioneer article