By Alan Prendergast
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By Melanie Asmar
One of the largest-ever private grants awarded to a Denver neighborhood has driven a rift between community groups in the very area it's supposed to be helping.
Last year the Denver nonprofit group NEWSED scored a major coup when it was picked to receive more than $3 million from the Maryland-based Annie E. Casey Foundation. NEWSED announced plans to use the money for "community-building" activities in an impoverished pocket of the city's largely Hispanic west side.
Now, though, NEWSED is openly feuding with the main neighborhood group in Lincoln Park, the neighborhood the Annie Casey money is targeted for. One member of the La Alma/ Lincoln Park Neighborhood Organization has suggested that the foundation may want to keep its money. NEWSED president Veronica Barela has responded by accusing LALPNO of "destructive behavior that could be damaging to the [Annie Casey] project."
Founded twenty years ago as the New Westside Economic Development Corporation, NEWSED was one of five organizations nationwide to win a $160,000 "planning grant" from Annie Casey in 1993. More than $3 million is expected to follow over the next six years, starting this fall. The Maryland foundation, the charitable arm of United Parcel Service, says its grants are intended to improve economic and social conditions in poor neighborhoods.
NEWSED, which has been embroiled in other controversies in the past ("West Side Story," August 24), has christened the Annie Casey project "Poder," the Spanish word for power. Earlier this year it established the 34-member Poder Advisory Council to help decide how to spend the foundation money.
But leaders of the La Alma/Lincoln Park neighborhood organization are voicing distrust of NEWSED--and its Poder initiative. In August LALPNO boardmember Rose Herrera wrote to the Annie Casey Foundation to ask that the foundation "reconsider" awarding the grant to NEWSED. "I truly believe that this money is not a community thing," Herrera wrote. "It is simply a power thing for Veronica."
Angered by Herrera's letter, the Poder Advisory Council went on the offensive. According to minutes of the group's August 31 meeting, members "agreed strongly that LALPNO cannot legitimately speak for neighborhood residents." NEWSED deputy director Virginia Martinez told the council it "could not depend" on LALPNO to help with the project.
"They represent their own little group of people," Josie Acosta, an advisory council member, says of LALPNO. "That's it. They don't represent the whole community."
Initially, Barela says, she hoped that LALPNO would help NEWSED reach out to Lincoln Park residents and get them to participate in the Poder project. She says LALPNO refused. "We've extended our hand in friendship on several occasions," says Barela. "I've tried like hell to work with these guys."
LALPNO members say Barela is "bad-mouthing" them and that they remain interested in the Annie Casey initiative. But they say they have their hands full right now with an anticrime project of their own called Operation Crack Down. "We never said we'd never work with Poder," says LALPNO secretary Betty L. Herrera (no relation to Rose Herrera).
This isn't the first dispute between Barela and Betty Herrera. Herrera used to work at NEWSED but left after clashing with Barela this summer.
Eloy Chavez, another member of the Poder Advisory Council, blames LALPNO members for letting such rifts get in the way of what should be a tremendous boon for the community. "Someone from that organization [LALPNO] has negative feelings and is trying to sabotage" the Annie Casey project, Chavez says.
Robert Zdenek, the Annie Casey program officer in charge of the initiative, says he doubts the split between NEWSED and the Lincoln Park group will endanger the grant. His group would prefer LALPNO's involvement in the project, Zdenek adds, "but you can't mandate it."
Members of the Lincoln Park group, meanwhile, bristle at NEWSED's claims that they no longer represent the neighborhood. "We are a legitimate organization," says Betty Herrera. "People believe in [LALPNO]. We have a lot of respect. Our track record speaks for itself.