A group hell-bent on saving the Westside Community Center is relieved to see the city decide not to move forward with a search process for a new operator after talks reached an impasse with one bidder.
“We are excited to finally reach a point that we can start having dialog with city officials,” the group’s spokesperson Richard Mee says in an email to the Indy. “We look forward to working with the mayor, council members and Parks and Recreation to create a vibrant community center that reflects the specific needs of our Westside community.”
During the months-long search process, city officials couldn’t openly discuss provisions of the negotiations due to requirements of procurement policies.
The news the city will start afresh also stirred hope from Councilor Richard Skorman that the city will now focus on maintaining the center for the benefit of the community.
“We are definitely making sure it has a community purpose,” Skorman tells the Indy. “Nobody is going to be asked to leave. We got the message loud and clear from the Westside neighbors they want this to remain a community asset, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
The Westside Community Center began as Buena Vista Elementary School and dates back nearly 100 years. Located at 1628 W. Bijou St., its three buildings cover an entire block and include a playground and community garden.
In 2009-2010, the city faced the prospect of closing its community centers — the others are Hillside, Meadows Park and Deerfield Hills — after the recession of 2008 eroded tax revenue.
Instead, the city continued to operate three and struck a deal with Woodmen Valley Chapel’s Center for Strategic Ministry LLC for operations at Westside, starting in 2010, the city’s website says.
Woodmen Valley, as that arrangement neared its Jan. 1, 2022 expiration, indicated it would not renew. So, the city last August sought proposals for a new operator.
The process worried Westsiders, who noted nothing in the city’s “request for information” seeking new proposals required an operator to maintain the facility as a community center.
That’s important, because the center has become a hub of activity at times. For example, the African-American Historical and Genealogical Society of Colorado Springs is based and has a museum there, and Silver Key’s Connections Café provides meals to those 60 and older and disabled persons. The Westside Food Pantry also serves residents during limited hours, and the Westside Community Center Garden offers 71 8-foot growing beds that can be rented by residents to grow food.
In addition, the center is often regarded as a gathering place for public meetings and political events, such as candidate forums.
In a July 2 release, the city said the Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services Department was “unable to come to a mutual agreement during its most recent negotiation with the YMCA of the Pikes Peak Region.” The Y’s was one of two proposals received.
“The parks department is not planning to reopen the current request for proposal at this time,” the release said.
The other top-ranked proposal came from Mountain Song Community School, but it wasn’t able to proceed due to its agreement with Colorado Springs School District 11.
In a statement provided to the Indy in May, D-11 spokesperson Devra Ashby said the charter school had asked the district to waive “a contractual exclusion that was part of the donation of the old Buena Vista school site to the city for the use as a westside community center,” but the district “declined to waive that exclusion that was in the transfer of property contract.”
The city also noted a team of people representing Westside residents, City Council, the Parks Advisory Board and the Parks Department evaluated the proposals.
“We appreciate the effort put forth by the organizations who submitted proposals, but, naturally, we are disappointed that we weren’t able to come to a mutual agreement through this process,” Kim King, recreation and administration manager, said in the release. “The parks department is committed to continued operations that benefit the Westside community, and we anticipate further dialogue with the current operator regarding a path forward.”
While Stu Davis, Woodmen Valley’s City Impact pastor, said in a July 6 email to city officials that the chapel is interested in compiling a proposal for a long-term lease or ownership, he tells the Indy by phone the chapel isn’t interested in extending its involvement in the “current capacity.” But he notes a “creative arrangement” might emerge.
Davis identified funding and program partners as key to operations that adequately serve the neighborhood as the center has during the chapel’s 12 years there. He also stressed the chapel is committed to enabling a smooth transition to a new operator, whenever that might occur, and that the center needs capital investment.
Westside might get a chunk of cash for such improvements from the city’s $76 million share of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act, designed to buoy cities, counties and states during recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The city’s plan calls for spending $1.8 million on Hillside, Meadows Park and Westside community centers. Westside could see several hundred thousand dollars spent on a new roof and HVAC system, Skorman says, thus curtailing the need for a contractor to make that investment.
“Then it will be a lot easier to find somebody to help us manage it,” Skorman says by phone. “The problem before was, we wanted to partner with someone who could invest in it, but now the city is willing to take some of that on. That makes it a lot easier to imagine how to move forward.”
Mee said the Westside group was glad to see the city’s selection process end, because it didn’t specify that the facility remain a community center.
“Over the several months of challenging this city’s process our westside community has coalesced and strengthened in working together,” he says. “We look forward to having active participation in the building and operations of our westside community center.”
He also noted the city shouldn’t expect every operation to be self-supporting or a money-maker.
“We feel a community center is a public service and public services should not be expected to be financially viable,” he says. “Why should the Westside Community Center have this expectation when no other community center has these same expectations?”
Editor’s note: Reporter Heidi Beedle contributed to this report.