Centers of Attention

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

As Jan Belle points out, that means the nonprofit group that wins the lease to Westwood has the potential to get quite a prize: the chance to buy a brand-new building, or an old building with $2.2 million attached to it, for only $10. "There's a lot at stake here," Belle says.

The 1998 bond also included $900,000 to build a new community center in the East Montclair neighborhood and $318,000 to either build a new center in the Whittier neighborhood or buy a building there to renovate. Hipp says the city still plans to move ahead on those two centers and then offer them to the nonprofits who originally asked for them. However, if those organizations don't pass muster with the city, officials will put out requests for proposals from other nonprofits.

All of this is perfectly legal, according to Assistant City Attorney Karen Avilis, who says it's completely aboveboard for the city to sell property that's been improved with bond money. In the case of Westwood, the renovations will be done while the city still owns the building.

Jan Belle is fighting to keep the Westwood Community Center.
Jonathan Castner
Jan Belle is fighting to keep the Westwood Community Center.

Nevertheless, several center directors say the situation has upset them and the people who use their programs. "This kind of shook our world," says Toni Riley, executive director of the Globeville Community Resource Center, which offers a food and clothing bank, a youth leadership program, a senior nutrition program and English as a Second Language classes. She points out that what the city may be characterizing as inconsistencies among the different centers are actually signs of responsiveness to the individuality of each neighborhood. "We've achieved some very, very, very strong relationships in this community," she says. "What we do here changes on a monthly, a weekly, a daily basis. Everything that happens here is community-driven."

"This has been a real negative, especially for this community," adds Judy Maurer, executive director of the Washington Street Community Center, which provides child care, a food bank and seniors programs. The average age of the people who use the Washington Street Community Center is 75, she says, and many of them are men who use the center as their only source of a healthy meal and a place to mingle. "This place has been here for 33 years. Our seniors are very anxious about this. This is their home, and this has been very traumatic."

Volunteers at the Washington Street Center, many of them seniors themselves, gathered 130 letters of support to send along with the center's proposal to the city. Other centers have sent in letters as well.

Some center directors and their boardmembers have concerns about the bidding itself. "I guess it's the process that's most disturbing," Maurer says.

For instance, all applicants, including those who already occupy the centers, were required to prepare a comprehensive business plan by September 8 stating the needs of their neighborhood and how their programs can meet those needs. "I got it done because I wanted to show them we could do it, to show them our competence. I really worked hard," says Westwood's Belle. But then she got a phone call saying the city council had pushed back the deadline to September 29 so that organizations that might not have heard about the offer could get a chance to apply. "I felt so let down," Belle says.

The office of asset management told the center directors that the city council had approved the extension, but councilwomen Kathleen MacKenzie and Elbra Wedgeworth both say the council never discussed the issue.

"That was an administrative decision made internally," Wedgeworth says, adding that she never saw the final draft of the proposal materials.

Democratic state senator Doug Linkhart, who has written letters in support of both the Washington Street and Westwood centers and is married to MacKenzie aide Dorothy Norbie, says he finds the change of deadline "appalling. I mean, you don't just change a deadline for an RFP project," he points out. "I don't think that's fair." Linkhart adds that he would rather see the city maintain control of the centers: "I think it's unfortunate, and I don't really understand it, because they've put millions of dollars into those centers through community development funds, and these dollars have been spent by the organizations that are in the centers and earned by those organizations."

There is also a concern that at least one person -- Grant Jones, from the nonprofit Piton Foundation -- didn't even know he was supposed to serve on the committee that will make the final decision on the bidding. The list, according to the city's division of public office buildings, includes the city councilmember from each district with a community center or a person designated by that councilmember, as well as representatives from several city departments, and Jones.

Under the city's timeline, the winners will be selected on October 15. The agreements are scheduled to be signed on November 15, with final approval from the city council coming in late November or December (the sale of all city-owned buildings requires the council's nod); the new nonprofits would move in in January. But this timeline would give any nonprofit that loses its lease little time to pack up and move out.

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