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Community centers' time is running out

DANIEL CHACÓN Updated: January 21, 2010 at 12:00 am

Weeks into an ambitious effort to keep four Colorado Springs community centers from being shuttered, the facilities are no closer to finding new sources of funding or private partnerships to avoid closure.

City officials say they have received promising inquiries, including one from an unidentified agency that’s interested in taking over operations of at least one community center before funding for all of them dries up March 31.

Officials are also reaching out to schools, nonprofit organizations and hundreds of churches — hoping someone will step forward.

But, so far, no one has signed on the dotted line.

The implications of closing the four community centers are profound.

Deerfield Hills, Hillside, Meadows Park and Westside community centers are in some of the city’s poorer neighborhoods and serve a largely working-class population. Between 43,800 and 68,500 people visit each of the centers annually, according to city documents.

The centers serve numerous purposes.

For some seniors, they’re a place to get a $2 lunch and escape the loneliness of being home alone. For parents, they’re a place to send their children to preschool or hang out while the parents are working. For adults, they offer a place to exercise or play league basketball. For some children, they are sometimes the only place to get something to eat.

“No question that it’s going to impact the lives of the people who depend on these facilities, whether they’re seniors that go there for meals or teens who go there after school as a safe haven,” said City Councilman Sean Paige, who is heading the effort to keep the centers open year-round.

Ken Callum, who grew up five blocks from Hillside Community Center, 925 S. Institute St., said it is vital to the neighborhood. There aren’t any grocery stores within walking distance and two area schools have been closed, he said.

“We’re constantly creating ghettos, and that is troubling me,” said Callum, 53. “We cannot let something that is viable in the community disappear.”

Al Martinez, an 85-year-old World War II veteran, said he’s been going to the Hillside center to eat and socialize since his wife, Tina, died of cancer a few years ago. Martinez said closing the center would be devastating to the neighborhood.

“Not for the sake of me, but the kids need this place, too,” he said. “I don’t think I’ll last much longer anyways, but the kids need this place.”

People who use the centers have been turning out by the dozens for a series of meetings, including one Wednesday, to come up with ideas to keep them open.

The city is awaiting responses to a 24-page request for proposals, or RFP, from anyone who might be able to operate one, some or all of the centers.

But the proposals, which require a pile of paperwork, including five years of financial statements, won’t be reviewed until after their Feb. 26 due date.

Paige said he’s concerned that the city’s bureaucracy could hamper the effort.

“I think we should have created a structure that allowed us to be fair and open, letting everybody come forward and be a player in the RFP process but not push it back so far,” said Paige, who, during last year’s budget-balancing sessions, advocated to fund the community centers for the first three months of 2010 to give residents a chance to develop private partnerships to keep them open all year.

“That is a decision that I have heartburn about,” he said.

The City Council agreed to spend nearly $402,000 to keep the centers open through March 31. The city anticipates the centers will generate $36,400 in revenue during that time.

Paul Butcher, director of Parks, Recreation & Cultural Services, acknowledged the time frame to review the proposals is tight and that it was challenging to write the proposal.

“It was a little bit different to send out an RFP that invites folks to take over city operations,” he said.

The city tried to make the request “as simple as possible,” Butcher said.

“But we didn’t want someone to waste a lot of time putting a bid together when they could not meet some standards (and) city expectations,” such as liability insurance, he said.

Community meeting

The final meeting to come up with ideas to keep the community centers open year-round will be from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Meadows Park Community Center, 1943 S. El Paso Ave

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