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Council hears debate over church's plan for community center

March 23, 2010

Woodmen Valley Chapel, one of the biggest evangelical churches in Colorado Springs, is trying to calm concerns that it would proselytize or infuse religion into the Westside Community Center if it takes over operations from the city.

A nonprofit associated with the megachurch submitted a three-year proposal to run the center, at 1628 W. Bijou St., after the city issued a plea for private partners earlier this year to avoid closing the Westside center and three others because of budget cuts.

Details of the proposal are under wraps because of ongoing negotiations, but news of the church’s involvement triggered concern that it would push its religion at the center.

“I have nothing against the Bible, but churches should not take over community centers because it gives the appearance that the city is supporting religion,” Springs resident Joe Barrera said. “These are city facilities that the city should run.”

Jan Doran, a longtime church member and community activist, appeared Tuesday before the City Council to try to temper public concerns.

“When we heard that there was a shortfall in the community center funding, we viewed that as an opportunity to step up to the plate,” she said. “We certainly in no way viewed it as an opportunity to turn the (Westside center) into a church.”

Doran assured council members and several people attending the council meeting who use the community center that no programs would be eliminated.

“We will embrace — ironically — church being held on Sunday, not our church, but somebody else’s church,” Doran said, apparently referring to the Rocky Mountain Center for Spiritual Living.

Paul Butcher, director of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services, said the nonprofit associated with the church didn’t ask for exclusive use of the center in its proposal.

“We have no indication that Woodmen Valley Chapel will dominate that free rental space,” he said. “They’re very sensitive … to the perception.”

Other concerns about the city’s public-private partnerships bubbled up Tuesday.

A for-profit group submitted a proposal to run the Aquatic and Fitness Center and two of the city’s four outdoor pools, prompting Councilwoman Jan Martin to express concerns about higher fees for people who may not be able to afford paying more money.

“I have seen their rates,” Butcher said, “and I do not think they are out of line.”

Councilman Sean Paige, who advocated three months of funding for the community centers and pools last year to give the community time to raise money and develop private sector partnerships, said he was “a little frustrated” with the criticism.

“We asked the community to step up and try something new,” he said. “It’s not perfect. We’re going to iron out some kinks.”

“Let’s keep in mind, the alternative is closure,” he added. “The alternative is no aquatics, no therapeutic (recreation), no community centers, none of these things.”

On Monday, city officials updated the council on the status of the two proposals to take over the Westside center and the Aquatic and Fitness Center.

Afterward, a majority of council members said they were willing to tap into the city’s rainy-day fund to pay to keep the three other community centers as well as the pool at Cottonwood Creek Recreation Center open through 2010.

Call the writer at 476-1623

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