May 25, 2008
After five years of bitter conflict, life in the Hillside neighborhood is calm again.
But it's not quiet. Hillside is a flurry of activity this spring as folks haul trash to neighborhood-sponsored bins at Hillside Plaza, and gather at the plaza for potlucks and programs sponsored by the Hillside Neighborhood Association.
The neighborhood and plaza are vibrant again thanks to Fred Bland, longtime Hillside resident and retired El Paso County election official.
It's the second time since 1985 that Hillside has been rescued. The first time, a young minister - Promise Lee - organized residents, created the neighborhood association and drove out the thieves, drug dealers and prostitutes who had overtaken the 1,100-home neighborhood southeast of downtown.
Bland was among those who rallied around Lee.
This time, Bland believed he needed to save Hillside from Lee, who left the association in 1998 to build his Relevant Word Ministries church.
At its heart, the dispute was a struggle for control Hillside Plaza, a run down, 50-year-old, seven-unit strip mall at Hancock Avenue and Costilla Street on the edge of Memorial Park.
The association's purchase of the plaza was considered a key to Hillside's revitalization years ago.
The plaza became Hillside's headquarters. Everything was fine until Lee left. Without strong leadership, Hillside slipped into complacency. Some called it a glorified quilting club.
Then, in January 2003, the association board signed ownership of the plaza over to Lee's church. Bland accused Lee of duping the board into giving the plaza away. He began fighting for its return to the neighborhood.
First he got elected to the board, recruited allies to the board and together they sued Lee for the plaza.
The fighting finally ended in November when Lee relinquished ownership of the plaza, valued at $365,000 by the county assessor. Lee did not return calls seeking comment.
The first thing the board did was refinance the plaza's $105,000 debt to get cash for improvements. Bland persuaded church groups and businesses to help with cleanup efforts - Woodmen Valley Chapel sent 1,300 volunteers into Hillside over several weekends and Best Way Disposal donated huge trash bins.
Today, the plaza has a new roof, a resurfaced parking lot, a fresh coat of paint and more. (See photos on my Side Streets blog)
Neighbors are responding to the changes. When Bland took over in 2003, the association had just 13 members who paid the voluntary $10 annual dues. Today, it counts 109 dues-paying members.
Bland is proud and vows Hillside won't need another rescue effort.
"The property is becoming the pride of the neighborhood again," Bland said. "We've got new people, new ideas and new energy. This won't happen again as long as we keep people involved and informed."