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Community centers: center of gravity 

Last winter, the money-strapped city came darn close to shuttering four community centers. But it decided to hold off — first for a few months, and then until the end of the year — hoping the community would find a way to keep the doors open.

Since then, Westside Community Center has been taken over by a nonprofit, and citizens have been hard at work trying to fund the other three centers before a new budget ax slams down. It's tough, because while Deerfield Hills, Hillside and Meadows Park centers help feed the hungry, care for kids and keep seniors active, they aren't money-makers.

So what's surprising is that today, there's actually more than one rescue plan on the table.

A task force led by Eric Phillips, a local who became involved early in the process, is setting up a nonprofit with plans for running the remaining three centers. Meanwhile, neighbors of the Meadows Park Community Center, at 1943 S. El Paso Ave., have set up their own plan for their facility, which they say could be replicated at the other two centers if needed.

City Council will have to evaluate both ideas this fall and decide which to support. They'll hear from the Meadows Park folks first, on Monday, Sept. 13. Supporters of that plan will have a lot to explain, because their model isn't as straightforward as creating a nonprofit to fund and operate the centers.

"There's not one person driving it," says the Rev. Scott Lovaas, a minister at Broadmoor Community Church.

The plan, devised by Lovaas with help from Brian Kates, program coordinator at Meadows Park, is to run that center as a public-private partnership. A board of stakeholders, the parks board and Kates would all have a say in running the center, while the Pikes Peak Community Foundation would manage the money, about $200,000 a year.

The decentralized plan is appealing to some. West side activist Karen Fleming was dismayed when a single nonprofit brought its own way of doing things to Westside. She says the Meadows plan is refreshing because it's "by the community and for the community."

Vice Mayor Larry Small, however, is worried that the model doesn't make a single entity responsible.

"I don't think they thought it through about how they're going to establish it," he says.

One thing's certain: The plan is ambitious. First, there's money. A couple years ago, Meadows Park operated on a budget of about $350,000. It's managing now with about $200,000 — but it's limping a bit with reduced hours and staff. This plan wouldn't increase that budget, but would increase services.

This is possible, Lovaas says, because of contributions from volunteers and churches. For instance, a church has set up a nonprofit that may be able to provide early childhood education — a service Meadows Park currently lacks. Churches plan to collect and distribute food to the hungry as well as offer a free Sunday evening meal. Police and firefighters have agreed to take part in center-sponsored meetings to create more neighborhood watch programs. Lovaas hopes student volunteers can tutor and mentor children after school.

So far, the group has about $75,000 in pledged money from foundations, businesses and individuals. The city would need to pay about $75,000 a year to keep the center open, and the rest of the budget would come via fees and fund-raising.

"I know it will work for Meadows Park," Kates says. "I think it can work at any community center if they have enough players."

stanley@csindy.com

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