Council finally gets the news
Briefing presented on Westside Center plans

       After several weeks in which city legalities forced elected officials to stay in the dark (at least formally), City Council April 26 finally got to hear Woodmen Valley Chapel's plan for a privatized operation of the city-owned Westside Community Center.

As teen program students exit through the current main door (background) of the Westside Community Center this week, Dick Siever, the new center director under Woodmen Valley Chapel, opens the door that will become the chief access. It will lead into a staffed information room, ensuring that all people entering the facility are accounted for. The other door will only be used for handicapped access, he said.
Westside Pioneer photo

       Dick Siever, who will serve as center director, gave the presentation, saying that the three-year contract agreement with city staff had been finished that morning and was just “awaiting a clean copy for signatures.”
       He summarized plans in which a limited liability corporation (LLC), established through Woodmen's Center for Strategic Ministry, will offer classes and programs much as the city had, but without a need for city funding. Last year, the city spent more than $400,000 to operate the center, earning only 20 percent back, according to city figures.
       The LLC also wants to get early community feedback. An open house/meeting for Westsiders is scheduled Saturday, May 15, at the center, 1628 W. Bijou St., starting at 11:30 a.m., including free lunches prepared by the church's Mobile Kitchen. Information about center plans will be offered, new ideas for human services will be welcomed and “we'll be there to answer questions,” Siever told council.
       Collaborations with five major social-service entities also were formally announced at the council meeting. Two with strong early involvement are Westside CARES (which recently moved its emergency-food pantry to the center) and the Billie Spielman Center (which provides a long-term case management) renting space in the center's east building. Others expected to get more involved over time are Greccio Housing (affordable housing), Silver Key (senior services) and Peak Vista (medical services).
       As he has before, Siever pledged not to use the center to evangelize for the church. He pointed out that Woodmen, through its hierarchy of ministries, has been working with needy elements of the community for more than three years without such issues arising.
       He said church members pursued the opportunity at Westside because of a belief that they could make a difference there. “We're not ashamed that we're associated with a church, but we will provide a welcoming place,” he said. “We think we can make improvements by serving and sharing God's love.”
       As for taking on the Westside Center, Siever noted to council, “I've had a lot of people ask, 'Why are you doing this?' I think the most straightforward answer is that we believe healthy and successful children, coupled with strong families and thriving adults, are fundamental in promoting social well-being in the Westside neighborhood.”

The playground at the northeast corner of the Westside Community Center property is a carryover from the days (until a year ago) when it was Buena Vista Elementary. Some playground fixes are on the checklist for the new Westside Community Center LLC; also, the former concrete tables (seen lying near the playground this week) are slated to be installed near the playground.
Westside Pioneer photo

       In January, Woodmen had been the only applicant in a City Parks request for proposals (RFP) that sought private entities to take over one or more of its four community centers. The RFP was prepared because city budget cutbacks had made it uncertain if City Parks could avoid closing the centers after March 31.
       Even though Woodmen was the only applicant, the city's RFP process required secrecy to prevail during negotiations between its Procurement Office and the church. This even extended to City Council - creating an ironic situation in which the body was not allowed to be involved in the discussions about an RFP that was related to its overall strategy to keep the centers from closing. Meanwhile, even though it was taking steps to begin operating the center as soon as the agreement got past city and church lawyers, Woodmen felt restrained from making any presentations, and this may have led to concerns expressed by a few people at a March council meeting who only knew bits and pieces of the church's center plans.
       City Council has since used $462,000 in reserve funds to keep the other three centers (Deerfield, Hillside and Meadows Park) open for the rest of this year.
       City Councilmember Sean Paige, who had suggested privatizing the centers as a way of saving them, lauded Woodmen for stepping forward. “This was a challenge for everyone involved,” he said. “Considering the alternative was closure, this was an amazing win-win.”
       Councilmember Scott Hente noted that he had initially been “skeptical at best,” but offered “kudos” for the way Woodmen has brought a plan together.
       “What really excites us is the sustainability aspect of the program,” City Parks Director Paul Butcher said. “It won't require any general-funding support now and into the future.”
       (Side note: Butcher has announced his retirement, effective April 30. According to city spokesperson John Leavitt, the 16-year director will be replaced, at least temporarily, by two remaining City Parks administrators, Kurt Schroeder and Kim King, under the supervision of Assistant City Manager Nancy Johnson.)
       In an interview after the meeting, Siever pointed out that the center has remained open during the RFP process.
       He also provided more details about center plans for the 27,000 square feet in the three buildings and on the 2.8-acre site in general, as follows:
       Budget - $190,000. The idea is to make the center pay for itself through certain fees, cost-efficiencies and volunteer help.
       Hours - The center will be open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 9 to 1 Saturdays.
       Programs - “We will continue all the programs that traditionally ran in the summer and we will try to expand them in the fall,” Siever said. “We invite people to offer classes.” The fee is $10 an hour, leaving it up to teachers to round up enough students at an appropriate rate to make their classes profitable. Especially welcome will be teachers willing to donate the students' fees to the center, Siever said, adding that two have already agreed to do this.
       Building use - The room with several windows in the westernmost building will be the first room for visitors, as it was for City Parks. The difference is a new main door (previously locked) that will lead straight into the room, ensuring accountability for all visitors. The current main door - next to a ramp outside - will become a handicapped-only entrance. The room will be staffed by people who know the center and its collaborators.
       Parking - The LLC is seeking city approval to allow 20 diagonal parking spaces near the center's main (westernmost) building, plus some spaces for handicapped parking nearest to the entrance. This alignment would allow room for a playing area and keep cars away from a future garden in the north-central part of the property.
       Pre-assigned space - In addition to those noted above, rooms are set aside for preschool, elementary, teen and senior uses. Other rooms will be dedicated to various uses, including art, computers, dance, job-finding and fitness. The gym and kitchen are available for evening rentals. Being sought is a church that might want to rent the gym, kitchen and other rooms on a Sunday morning, Siever said.
       Summer youth programs - The preschool and elementary programs will be offered similar to past years. Details on the teen program are being finalized. For more information on preschool call 598-8420, for elementary call 385-5981 or 385-7920.
       Property upgrades - Improvements are planned to the existing playground equipment at the northeast corner; also, the outdoor basketball court on the northwest side is to get nets for its basket hoops and new paint for its court lines.
       Website - The address is ourwcc.org. It is still being set up.

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