Westside Center garden put on hold until 2011

       Three months ago, a garden outside the Westside Community Center seemed more of a certainty than the center itself. Because of city budget cuts, the facility then was slated to close at the end of March; meanwhile, at a Jan. 11 public meeting, a group of volunteers calling themselves the Westside Agricultural Learning Center (WALC) asked for people to rent plots and talked enthusiastically about starting preliminary garden work before even February.
       As it turns out, things went just the opposite way. The center remains open, with a limited liability corporation (LLC) of Woodmen Valley Church poised to lease it under a three-year contract, but the garden - lacking start-up funds and a formal entity WALC can partner with - is not going to happen this year.
       “It was very sad,” said Westside resident Sherry Bennett, a WALC leader along with Karen Fleming. “I was upset. We worked very, very hard. And a lot of the neighbors wanted to see the garden happen too.”
       The future holds some promise. Pikes Peak Urban Gardens (PPUG), a non-profit group that specializes in founding gardens, had worked with City Parks last fall to identify Westside as a potential garden site and would like to help WALC put together a plan for next year. Options include WALC attaining a 501c3 (non-profit status), working with PPUG using the latter group's 501c3 or just turning the site over to PPUG altogether, summarized Larry Stebbins, head of PPUG.
       “We'll probably be meeting with Karen and Sherry and see what they want to pursue,” he said. In one form or another, he expects plans to come together by late summer, including a decision on the 501c3 (which would allow applications to be made for grants), and the result could be a thriving garden in 2011.
       Meanwhile, PPUG is going strong with its Vermijo Park garden fully rented and most of its gardeners expected to start planting this weekend. PPUG had obtained a grant to cover the main costs there this year. Vermijo was the other Westside site PPUG had suggested to the city as a potential garden in a city-owned location.
       At Westside, the idea was/is to offer raised beds for handicapped people who may have difficulty with the traditional ground-level plots. Towards that, WALC had managed to obtain several donations, including wood and mulch.
       Seeking humor in the gloom, Bennett said that she has such donated items now “stored at her house and here, there and everywhere.” Last weekend, she even had to haul donated mulch over to Vermijo because the city had no immediate use for it at Westside.
       Fleming was reluctant to talk about why the Westside garden didn't happen, but Bennett philosophized that it was essentially an outgrowth of the Westside Community Center situation. When City Parks was running the facility, there had been a pledge of $1,100 to cover the city-requirements for a water meter and insurance. But with the city pulling out of the center, those funds were no longer available, she said. Then there had been the impression - never put into writing - that WALC could piggyback onto the non-profit status of the Rock Ledge Ranch Historic Site's Living History Association (LHA). In retrospect, Bennett said she sees how the misunderstanding occurred, considering how focused the LHA has been on finding donations to keep the ranch open. “Everyone has been under so much pressure,” she said. “Everyone has been grasping at straws to keep programs going.”
       For Bennett, the city pull-out was doubly unpleasant, because it also meant losing her part-time job at the center running an afterschool teen arts program.
       Now she and Fleming have the depressing task of returning applications and deposit money sent in for Westside garden plots. She said there had been “eight or nine” of those.
       Despite the setback this year, City Parks remains interested in the idea of a garden on the Westside Community Center grounds. A recently developed master plan calls for a garden there (in the one-time Buena Vista school playground); also, a garden operation could exist separate from the center itself, explained Chris Lieber, development manager of City Parks. “We're still eager to work with a partner on that,” he said. “We still think it's a good project.”

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