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Centers of Attention

Denver is selling its community centers, leaving the people who work there wondering why.

Jan Belle knows who in her neighborhood is having a baby and who's in need of food. With the Westwood Community Center as her home base, she and fellow center workers offer support to pregnant women and let struggling families know about the center's emergency food program, through which they can get food for four for a week.

As the director of the nonprofit Southwest Improvement Council, which leases the center from the City of Denver, Belle is in charge of a dizzying array of community programs, including a home-repair service for seniors, an affordable-housing program that refurbishes and builds homes for low-income families, a youth education service that provides tutoring and healthy snacks after school, and the SWIC SHARE Store, where shoppers can buy expensive grocery items such as diapers and laundry soap with points they earn by volunteering in the community. In addition, SWIC has poured thousands of dollars and hours into improving the Westwood center, which it has managed since 1993. Workers have kept the deteriorating building clean and well-painted, wrangled a bank loan and a volunteer handyman to put security screens on the windows, and turned a plot of land across the street into a community garden.

To Belle, the Westwood Community Center is much more than just a building.

"I thought everything was finally coming together for us," she says. "But then [the city] put the center up to bid to people who just see it as a business opportunity."

This summer, the city told Belle and the directors of Denver's five other community centers that it was getting out of the community-center business. In August it put the centers up for grabs, requesting proposals from nonprofit organizations interested in buying the buildings.

Although the city owns the buildings, it does not run the centers. Instead, it leases the buildings to neighborhood nonprofit groups, each with its own board of directors, and lets them run the programming. Along with Westwood, which is at 1000 South Lowell Street, the buildings up for bid are Five Points Community Center, at 2855 Tremont Place; Globeville Community Resource Center, at 4400 Lincoln Street; Park Hill Community Center, at 2823 Fairfax Street; Pecos Community Center, at 3555 Pecos Street; and Washington Street Community Center, at 809 South Washington Street.

The same groups that occupy the buildings now can enter the bidding process, but they are by no means assured of winning, since the city's criteria for competing organizations is broad: The nonprofit group must be a registered 501(c)(3), and it must have at least three years of experience providing community services. Each organization can bid for only one center and must have $10,000 in cash or a line of credit to cover initial costs such as utility deposits and insurance.

"The centers represent a long-term financial liability for the city," says Margo Blu, director of Denver's division of public office buildings. Although several million dollars was allocated to the centers by the voter-approved 1998 Neighborhood Bond Project, maintaining each of the aging centers still costs anywhere from a few thousand dollars to $30,000 per year, Blu adds, depending on the condition of the building.

Housing and Neighborhood Services director Myrna Hipp says the city wants to improve the consistency of services provided by the centers. "We have community centers operating at a variety of different levels. Some are open around the clock doing all kinds of good work, while others are not open when you'd expect a community center to be open. We need the centers to be available to the residents of the communities," she says.

Besides, says Carla Vialpando, a real estate analyst with Denver's asset management office, the city doesn't want to maintain buildings in which city employees rarely work.

Under the present system, the city basically acts as a landlord for the community centers: It owns the buildings and pays for major repairs, while the nonprofits lease the spaces for $1 a year and cover day-to-day expenses, including the costs of their own programs. The first three years of the city's new plan will be similar: During that time, those nonprofits that win the bidding process will also lease the buildings from the city for $1, and the city will gradually stop paying for major repairs. At the end of the lease period, if city officials think the center's operators have done a good job of providing community services, Denver will sell them the buildings -- and all of the responsibilities that go with it -- for only $10.

If the current nonprofits win the bidding, nothing much will change, except that the organizations will have to come up with the money for upkeep. But according to the proposal materials, if new organizations were to win, they would not be allowed to turn around and sell their buildings to developers, to be used for other purposes: The city has stipulated that the buildings must be used as community centers for at least twenty years after they're sold.

Money from the 1998 bond project has paid for improvements that have already been completed or are under way: a new heating and air-conditioning system at the Five Points center, a new kitchen at the Washington Street center and improvements at the Pecos Community Center. But not all of the money allocated has been used. Over $2.2 million was budgeted to the Westwood Community Center for complete renovation, but that money won't be spent until the lessee of the center has been selected.

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