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

Centers of Attention

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.

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.

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.

And in the meantime, center directors and employees will continue to work as usual. "The people who come here are all on the same page," says the Globeville center's Riley. "We all pray a lot that things will stay the same -- that the seniors will have someplace to hang out in the mornings and the kids will have someplace to come in the afternoons."

Others, like Jan Belle, are more determined.

"I'm totally focused on getting the building. We've worked hard for it, and it's ours," she says. "We really want it. We love it. This is our home."


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