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Gazette Premium Content SIDE STREETS: Here lies the Hillside Neighborhood Association, RIP

BILL VOGRIN Updated: November 30, 2012 at 12:00 am

On Saturday afternoon, a few dozen Hillside neighborhood residents will gather for dinner.

The group will include many of the 30 dues-paying members of the Hillside Neighborhood Association, as well as a handful of association board members and a few guests.

The board president, Jill Collins, will distribute about $50,000 in grants from the association bank account to three nonprofit groups. And she will pay tribute to Fred Bland, longtime neighborhood leader and esteemed retired Army sergeant major and former El Paso County elections director.

Sounds like a festive occasion, right?

Not so much.

Instead of a celebration, it will be more of a funeral.

Collins will end the dinner by officially dissolving the Hillside Neighborhood Association.

It’s a stunning and abrupt end to a once-proud and powerful neighborhood group started in 1985 by residents concerned about the decay of the neighborhood southeast of downtown Colorado Springs.

Led by charismatic community organizer Promise Lee, the Hillside Neighborhood Association developed anti-crime programs that led to a decline in violent and property crimes that plagued the 1,400-home low-income neighborhood at the time.

Lee led efforts to create affordable housing for residents. And the association even developed a plan to encourage small business development in the neighborhood called the “Sustainability and Replications” program. The centerpiece of the program involved the neighborhood buying the seven-unit Hillside Plaza strip mall on South Hancock Avenue to give opportunities to neighborhood entrepreneurs.

Bland, now 82, was one of the neighborhood leaders who rallied others to raise the thousands needed to buy the center and he chipped in the most with his $1,000 donation.

The association was so successful it was recognized in 1997 by the National Civic League and honored with its prestigious All America City award. There were trips to a national banquet for Lee, Bland and others. And even a visit to Washington D.C. and a meeting with Vice President Al Gore to receive the plaque.

Hillside was known nationally for reclaiming its community from prostitutes, drug dealers and thieves.

I remember the time well.

And I’m shocked that just 15 years later the organization has collapsed.

Like so many organizations, it floundered after its dynamic founder, Lee, resigned in 1998 to focus on building a church, now the Relevant Word Christian Cultural Center in Hillside at 1040 S. Institute St.

In his absence, the association languished and deteriorated into mostly a social organization. The neglect carried over to the Hillside Plaza and controversy erupted after the board voted in 2003 to turn over the plaza to Lee’s ministry.

Bland launched a high-profile campaign to reclaim the plaza for the neighborhood. First he went to the El Paso County District Attorney seeking a probe of the transfer of ownership. The prosecutor investigated Bland’s allegation of fraud but found no evidence of a crime.

Then Bland sued Lee for its return. The suit accused Lee of duping board members into signing away ownership. Lee denied all allegations saying the board asked his church to take the plaza because it was struggling to attract tenants and was deteriorating. At the same time, Bland took control of the association board.

By September 2007, Lee returned the plaza to the association, which Bland refinanced and set about repairing with a new roof and other improvements.

But the clash of Hillside titans had divided the neighborhood and probably doomed the association.

Bland turned over control of his new board in 2010 to Babette Stedman, who moved into Hillside in 1998. She served as president and oversaw the sale of the plaza in May 2011 for $175,000.

Bland wanted the neighborhood to keep the plaza because it was generating revenue. But he recognized that neighborhood apathy was forcing the board decision to sell. Few Hillsiders wanted to get involved and do the work of being a landlord.

At the time, he even warned the association might need to dissolve unless other residents got involved.

But neighbors mostly shrugged. Bland’s warning proved prophetic.

Stedman stepped down after the sale, along with other board members. Collins, who moved to Hillside in 2004, tried to rescue the association but found it overwhelming.

“We worked really hard to save it,” Collins said. “We looked at a lot of other neighborhood associations. We did a lot of research. But we just didn’t have enough manpower and administrative knowledge to keep it going.”

Like Bland and Stedman, Collins said neighborhood apathy was a huge problem. Heck, even Stedman stopped paying her $20 annual dues after she left the board, she was so burned out.

Collins also was amazed at the depth of lingering bitterness from the years of conflict.

“It’s such a shame because we had money and ideas and there were so many things we could have done,” Collins said. “It was very shocking, actually. There’s so much history. People just couldn’t seem to get past it. It should be a thriving neighborhood association. But everything is so negative. At some point it you can’t move on, you’re stuck.”

So rather than continuing to fight, Collins and the board opted to cash out.

The remaining funds from the sale of the plaza will be divided between three non-profit organizations:

• The Pikes Peak Library Foundation and its Shivers Fund, which was established in 1993 by Clarence and Peggy Shiver to provide cultural opportunities for youth and nurture the library’s African-American Historical and Cultural Collection.

• The Pikes Peak Urban League, which provides employment, child services and other opportunities to minorities.

• The Colorado Prince Paul Foundation, which gives college scholarships to black students.

Paula Miller, executive director of the library, said she was honored to be a recipient of Hillside funds but was saddened by the circumstances.

“It’s bittersweet the association has to be dissolved,” Miller said, adding the donation will be recognized perhaps with a plaque or more, ensuring the name, at least, will live on.

Collins said she feels she had no other choice.

“I’m very conflicted,” she said. “It’s sad it’s happening but it probably had to happen.”

And she holds out great hope for Hillside.

“I love the neighborhood,” Collins said. “Maybe we could start over in a few years.

“But they’d need to name it something different. Hillside Neighborhood Association has too much negative associated with it.”

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