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Man with a plan 

Eric Phillips finishes his PowerPoint presentation and stands quietly at the podium facing the nine members of City Council.

It is possible that Phillips — who has put together a plan to save city community centers — expects a round of applause. But no clapping is forthcoming.

"How much do you have in the bank today?" Vice Mayor Larry Small asks.

This is the first of many Council questions to which Phillips has disappointing replies. The answer here: Nothing.

'Out of nowhere'

Last winter, it looked like city budget cuts would doom four community centers. Instead, Councilman Sean Paige led an effort to make them self-sustaining. Westside Community Center was eventually taken over by a nonprofit. The other three — Meadows Park, Deerfield Hills, and Hillside — were given reduced funding through 2010 and told the cord would be sliced in 2011.

Phillips started out leading the Community Center Taskforce, a grassroots group that did bake sales, brainstormed and tried to raise awareness last winter. The taskforce was in tatters by summer, but Phillips soldiered on, creating the Community Partnership Project (CPP) and putting together a business plan.

His hope is to run the three centers under the nonprofit, with funding support from the city, revenues and grants. All he needs is $381,000 in city dollars to run Meadows, Deerfield and Hillside. But since there's a competing plan for Meadows — already with $75,000 in pledged contributions — that Council seems to favor, Phillips says he could just cover Hillside and Deerfield. That'd only cost the city $200,000 to $250,000.

Paige, who's helped Phillips get acquainted with city leaders, is gung-ho, calling the plan "very thorough" and suggesting that Phillips is a hero who "came out of nowhere."

That he did. And that troubles Councilor Jan Martin.

"I think it would be important to know Eric's background and what skills he brings," she says.

Turns out Phillips has no problem sharing. He says that out of a tough childhood in Cleveland that included a bout in foster care, he joined the U.S. Army (and was partially disabled in a car accident while on duty), worked a few odd jobs and started a couple property management businesses, both of which failed. His last venture, Optimum Property Management, sank last spring and he's been unemployed since.

He's finishing his business degree at the University of Phoenix and living off military disability checks and student loans. He's 46, married with two small children, and has a 17-year-old daughter from a previous marriage.

Phillips says he's turned down job offers to pursue this nonprofit. His friends think he's crazy. Some city folks think he's unqualified. He disagrees with all of them.

"The first thing about running a nonprofit is having a passion for it," he says, adding that everyone has to start somewhere.

Using part of the CPP's $10,000 El Pomar Foundation grant, he had a firm assemble a professional business plan, and established the nonprofit. He says he has a list of 260 volunteers to help staff the centers (though he would not show the list to the Independent, and no community center directors have seen the list or any of the volunteers).

He has a nine-member board (with two vacancies) made up of business people and a few familiar names: Kee Warner, a University of Colorado at Colorado Springs professor; Peggy Littleton, a member of the Colorado Board of Education and candidate for El Paso County commissioner; and Cleveland Thompson, pastor of Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Church.

Phillips has been meeting with community leaders to get them interested in donating or giving grants if the city approves his plan. But he says that as the new guy, he didn't feel comfortable asking for money right off the bat.

"It took me a lot of time to make people aware of what we are trying to do," he says. "If you give us time, we'll make this work."

Surprise, surprise

Joan Clemons, program coordinator of Hillside, was the first to encourage Phillips to help the centers. Clemons knew him as the guy who dropped by every Christmas with donations for needy families, courtesy of Community Associations Institute, a nonprofit on whose board Phillips serves. She was impressed with his zeal.

By summer, the community-based taskforce had fizzled, and eventually the two taskforce members Phillips had selected for his nonprofit board dropped off. Some lost faith in Phillips, but Clemons jumped to his defense. She believed he was creating a plan to save the centers, and that she'd be a part of it.

So she was a little dismayed when she saw the budget numbers for the first time at Phillips' Sept. 27 Council presentation. (Phillips had not shared his budget with city staff, Council or the parks board. He says it was not complete.) Clemons, who now earns $60,094 annually, would make $29,000 a year under Phillips' plan.

In other words, she's out.

"I maybe had blinders on," she says, "because I probably shouldn't have been as surprised as I was to see that format."

Council seemed equally disconcerted to hear about the bare-bones staff, highly reliant on volunteers, making very little, with no benefits. And what, to some, seemed a top-heavy administration. At the pinnacle is the executive director, a position Phillips says he would fill with his board's approval, which pays $43,000 to be the centers' "face" and to lead fundraising.

Below Phillips is a $40,000-a-year facilities program coordinator, responsible for programs. Each center would have its own $29,000 coordinator and a front-desk person at $24,000, plus two to four part-timers at $10 an hour. Services like maintenance, janitorial and grant-writing would be contracted.

Reinventing the wheel

Most other efforts to save community centers have focused on bringing in funding and cutting expenses.

In the past couple years, city staff has simply reduced the centers' budgets and told directors to find other money. In 2009, Hillside, Meadows and Deerfield had more than $1.2 million in expenses and brought in just $159,721 in combined revenues and grants. In 2010, the three centers cost $766,622 to run and brought in $270,591 in revenues and grants. The preliminary 2011 city budget provides just $225,000 for the three centers (less than Phillips requested, and not enough to keep the doors open without outside help).

Another plan before Council would leave Meadows under city direction while adding programs. Big decisions would be made by a team of community stakeholders, the parks board and Meadows director Brian Kates. Local business and nonprofits would help fund the center — and about $75,000 has already been pledged (the center has a $200,000 total annual budget). The plan is a potential model for the other two centers.

Phillips, on the other hand, wants the vestiges of the city (except its money, of course) out of the equation. The nonprofit would run its own operations with its own staff and its own programs under its own budget. The city would pay about 60 percent of the centers' expenses for at least the first year, but Phillips thinks grants and revenues will spike after the nonprofit begins charging a $20 yearly fee to center users, plus program fees designed to recover 100 percent of costs.

Martin isn't so confident.

"He's been at this a long time," she says. "He's had a long time to talk to community leaders and garner support. My frustration was that I didn't see any evidence that he had that support."

But Phillips certainly has his fans, including Paige. And Phillips points out big advantages to his model. For one thing, by making his drastic salary reductions permanent, the centers could be more easily sustainable in the long run.

"We're not going to put a plan out there that would fail," he says.

stanley@csindy.com

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