City Block Grant Funding Cuts Hit Home For YMCA CDC-Riverwest

More than $1 million in cuts to community organizing by the City is taking its toll in many neighborhoods, and Riverwest is no exception. Community organizing and neighborhood planning activities will take a hit when the YMCA CommunityDevelopment Corporation at 604 E. Center St. closes its doors on Dec. 31, 2002. The office, which the YMCA opened a little over a year ago and which represents a $37,000 buildout investment on the part of the Y, has been used for many neighborhood gatherings. In a meeting with concerned neighbors, YMCA CDC executive director Jesse Greenlee said that because of Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding cuts and a YMCA CDC deficit, there is no option but to close the office on Center Street. The YMCA runs two CDCs, one in Riverwest and one on the North Side. Currently three employees work out of the Riverwest office: Rick Slayton, housing and construction project coordinator; Vince Bushell, neighborhood planner; and Jan Christensen, community organizer. The Riverwest Neighborhood Association (RNA) was exploring ways to keep the office open as the Currents went to press. At a meeting Nov. 19, the RNA passed a motion to “send a letter on behalf of the RNA to Jesse Greenlee, executive director of the YMCA CDC, to ask his office to commit to keeping the CDC office at 604 E. Center Street open and staffed for 2003.” The motion continued: “The letter will state that if the YMCA is unable or unwilling to keep the office open, the RNA will ask the City to move the two neighborhood grants ($26,574 for community organizing and $111,000 for Integrated Neighborhood Revitalization Strategy (INRS) on Holton Street) to another neighborhood organization for administration.” The RNA took this action after hearing that Ald. Mike D’Amato supported keeping the office open and, if necessary, would ask the City to transfer block grant funds to an organization that would keep the office open and maintain a strong presence in the neighborhood. “I led the fight to bring the CDC out into the street — to an office that would be accessible to the neighborhood,” D’Amato said. “Until that happened, we didn’t see real action. For [CDC staff] to go back into the YMCA Holton Youth Center is a terrible step back.” D’Amato noted that he was surprised that the funding cuts, which allotted $26,574 for community organizing instead of last year’s $77,000 (an allotment which funded the community organizing position), would force the YMCA CDC to take such a drastic step as to close the office where it had invested so much money and would continue to receive discounted rent. “I expected the Y to do more work to find funding,” he said. Greenlee noted that though the YMCA CDC office recognized the dangers of depending on CDBG funding, it had not pursued private grants before CDBG funding cuts were announced. “One of our plans in the past had been to decrease CDBG funding for community organizations, but it seemed that foundations were not interested in giving money for organizing unless it was tied to economic development,” he said. A year ago, the YMCA CDC eliminated an economic development position in Riverwest because of CDBG funding cuts. In anticipation of funding cuts again this year and losing technical support from YMCA CDC-Riverwest employees, the RNA asked Greenlee two months ago to explore other funding possibilities. He said in a recent meeting that he had looked into the two suggested grants. Because grants for YMCA programs are written in the financial development office of the downtown Y, it was unclear whether both or just one of the grants had been applied for. Greenlee also pointed out that the CDC would not apply to foundations that other YMCA programs received grants from, to avoid internal competition. “If the YMCA CDC can’t apply for any grants, maybe they’re not the right organization to be administering the CDC,” said one resident at the RNA meeting. “We need someone who is committed first of all to our neighborhood.” If either of the grants came through, it would not be until February or March. Greenlee had hoped to keep two part-time employees until March in case funding came through, but staff workers were not interested in part-time positions. Greenlee mentioned a couple more long-term funding options for the YMCA CDC program, including “linkages” with suburban YMCAs that involve resource exchanges, and increasing home construction so that revenue could be used for CDCs. However, he emphasized that his current spending priority is getting rid of the YMCA CDC’s deficit. YMCA President Jack Lund told the Currents that the YMCA has suffered along with other non-profits with CDBG funding cuts and reductions in charitable giving. “We’re very committed to Riverwest,” he said, citing the YMCA Holton Youth Center as an example of that commitment. However, Lund was unfamiliar with the specifics of the YMCA CDC-Riverwest closing and declined comment on the situation. “We want a strong presence in Riverwest in the future, we’re just not sure how that’s going to look,” he said. The RNA and concerned residents aren’t quite sure how neighborhood planning and community organizing is going to look after the double blow from City funding cuts. Greenlee said the YMCA CDC could support one neighborhood position based out of the YMCA Holton Youth Center: a full-time job that would be a combination of two jobs — coordinating the newly-awarded INRS grant to help revitalize Holton Street, and doing community organizing. But according to the neighborhood strategic plan (NSP) for Riverwest, developed a couple years ago when the CDC office first opened here, the neighborhood should have, “at a bare minimum, a full-time organizer and a full-time economic development person,” said Bushell, who wrote the NSP. And that’s just the minimum. Ideally there would be a position for a neighborhood planner as well. “It’s my belief that neighborhood planning is still critical, particularly in relation to the River Valley and new housing development in the area,” Bushell said. It is possible that another organization would administer the grant. “If the Y is not committed to keeping the office open, we need to find another way to provide these services to the neighborhood,” said Ald. D’Amato. The YMCA has been administering the H.O.M.E. grant for the Riverwest Currents, an independent neighborhood newspaper. The YMCA has not tried to exercise any editorial control of the paper. The grant runs through the end of this year. In other RNA news, the RNA decided to have its Christmas meeting Tuesday, Dec. 10, at the Center Street office, 7 p.m. Riverwest Currents – Volume 1 – Issue 11 – December 2002