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Thursday, March 3, 2005 04:24 am

A question of control

The Rev. Samuel Hale: “It’s an injustice to the community and to the Ministerial Alliance.”

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin gave life to plans for a new East Side community center by securing a $750,000 federal grant, but his choice of the Boys & Girls Club of Springfield to oversee the project has rankled some key community leaders.

The Rev. Samuel Hale and the Rev. Silas Johnson, leaders of the Springfield Ministerial Alliance, which represents more than two dozen churches on the East Side, are in the process of forming their own nonprofit foundation to oversee the project.

It was the Ministerial Alliance, they say, that initiated the project back in October 2003, helped file the formal request for federal funding in March 2004, and brought dozens of community groups, including the Boys & Girls Club, into the fold.

They say the decision to hand the reins over to the Boys & Girls Club came as a shock.

“It’s an injustice to the community and to Ministerial Alliance,” says Hale, pastor of Zion Missionary Baptist Church and co-chairman for the community center’s executive steering committee.

“We spearheaded this whole operation and brought community groups together,” he continues. “To find out it’s being supplanted by the Boys & Girls Club presents a real dilemma.”

Boys & Girls Club representatives have attended meetings to discuss the new community center for the last year. But it wasn’t until last month that the organization’s prominent role in the project became known.

A Durbin representative “formally asked” the Boys & Girls Club to lead the project in early February, just days before the senator made the funding announcement, according to Kristin Allen, executive director for the Boys & Girls Club.

“Finalizing the decision to lead the center did happen very fast,” Allen says, “but it’s my perception that it was done in the open.”

Hale complains that the Ministerial Alliance and the community center’s executive steering committee were kept in the dark.

“All credibility and confidence has been lost,” Hale says.

Bill Houlihan, Durbin’s downstate director and the point man on the community-center project, insists that the ministers were kept informed.

Houlihan says that the Boys & Girls Club is a perfect fit for the project. The organization’s long legacy of community service, he says, will likely ensure more federal and state funding.

“The Boys & Girls Club is something that people in this community know,” Houlihan says. “Why create another foundation when we already have one?”

Last March, Hale, Johnson (pastor of Calvary Baptist Church), and other members of the community center’s executive steering committee founded the Community Center Foundation of Springfield to accept and administer funds for the project. Their application for tax-exempt status is pending with the Internal Revenue Service.

“The Community Center Foundation is something they formed with no approval from Sen. Durbin,” says Houlihan.

Hale argues that establishing a new foundation is critical to “keeping the community in control of the community center.”

Initially, he says, the Boys & Girls Club was to be just one of many local agencies that would help anchor the project and offer programs at the center. Hale fears that its new leadership role will limit the kinds of services that are offered because the organization works almost exclusively with youths.

Allen promises that the project will be inclusive and hopes to smooth relations with the leaders of Ministerial Alliance. The two groups plan to meet on Monday.

“We hope we’re accepted in this role of leading the project,” Allen says. “As we work with the ministers, any concerns they may have will be resolved.”

Allen adds that it “has not been determined” whether the Boys & Girls Club will close its current sites, including the main branch at 15th and Monroe streets, when the new community center opens.

Hale and Johnson, meanwhile, may still establish their own foundation to rival the project’s current leadership. They have invited Houlihan to attend the next Ministerial Alliance meeting, set for Saturday morning, to discuss these issues.

Whatever the outcome, both ministers say, they plan to remain leaders in the effort to build a much-needed community center on the city’s East Side.

“We would not forego the project,” says Johnson.

The goal is to build a roughly $4 million, 40,000-square-foot building, modeled after the Patriots Gateway Community Center in Rockford, where a wide range of programs for youths, adults, and seniors would be offered.

The federal funding will be used to choose and purchase a site and design a structure. The American Business Club ponied up the first major private donation to the project last week, promising $250,000 over the next five years.

The need for a new community center was established in 2002, after the city of Springfield commissioned a report that cited a lack of public parks, recreational buildings, and job- and educational-training programs in the area.

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