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Wednesday, July 23, 2008 11:14 pm

A lack of commitment

Springfield drops the ball on promised east-side community center

Three years ago, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin gave hope to Springfield's east side.

He promised the city's most neglected residents that he would help them build a much-needed community center, and he delivered. Durbin announced with great fanfare at a Springfield press conference that he had secured an initial $750,000 for the project and that the Boys & Girls Club would take the lead.

Things got off to a rocky start when the Springfield Ministerial Alliance — whose members reportedly initiated the project in October 2003 and helped acquire the federal funding — accused the Boys & Girls Club of stealing the reins of the project. When the alliance moved to form its own nonprofit group, the Community Center Foundation, Durbin's office assured the ministers that the Boys & Girls Club had a top-notch fundraising record and was the best for the job.

"You're not going to build a $4 million building with $50 contributions," Bill Houlihan, Durbin's downstate director, told the alliance [see Todd Spivak, "Moving forward," March 10, 2005].

The dispute was smoothed over, and the two groups worked together to formulate plans for the 40,000-square-foot building, slated to cost between $5 million and $10 million. But the project still stalled.

Last year, Kristin Allen, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club, told Illinois Times that additional funds had still not been pledged and a building site had not been chosen [see Amanda Robert, "Stepping Up," July 12, 2007].

As of last week, nothing had changed.

Dr. W.G. Robinson-McNeese, president of the Springfield Ministerial Alliance, said Monday that the partners the Boys & Girls Club had been seeking had been slow in signing on and extending financial support. Because the organization couldn't secure additional funds in a timely manner, he explained, the community center's federal grants — which included an extra $200,000 allocated this year — were in jeopardy.

"The money that had come to the project from Sen. Durbin's office essentially had a time attached to it," Robinson-McNeese said. "My understanding is that once the money is allocated something has to be done with it. If nothing is done with it, it goes back or has to be reallocated."

Calls to Durbin's office and Allen weren't returned until Tuesday. Allen acknowledged that both Durbin and the Boys & Girls Club were disappointed with the status of the community center's funding, but said she hoped that the senator would stand by his commitment.

Late Tuesday, Durbin's office issued a press release, announcing that all of the funds would now be set aside for the Edwin Watts Southwind Park. There was enough excitement about the community center, he said, but not enough outside financial support to take the project to the next level.

"The concept of a quality facility for kids and families on the east side of the city is one that I look forward to supporting in the future," Durbin said in the release, "when the community has gathered the kind of broad-based financial support needed to make such a project a success."

Allen said the Boys & Girls Club never expected that the project would be finished anytime soon, especially after such organizations as the city of Springfield, the Sangamon County Department of Public Health, and the Springfield Park District — one of the primary backers of the Southwind project — wouldn't commit.

"We asked for firm commitments and decisions, and none of those partnering entities that we have been working with in the past several years indicated that they are able to make those financial commitments and resources to help create the center," she said.

Despite its financial glitches, the Boys & Girls Club will move forward with plans to build a community center on Springfield's east side. It won't be exactly the same model originally envisioned, Allen said; instead, it will be scaled down to 8,000 to 10,000 square feet. The community center will house the organization's American Business Club unit (which donated $250,000 to the project in 2005), as well as programming space for Senior Services of Central Illinois and Springfield School District 186.

The next step for the Boys & Girls Club is to present its new plan and to identify additional private and corporate sponsors. The organization has also considered new appropriate building sites for their scaled-down design, Allen added, but the board has not finalized a decision.

Robinson-McNeese told Illinois Times Wednesday that the Ministerial Alliance has other ideas. The alliance isn't happy that the community center lost the money, he said, but the ministers would like to take advantage of the opportunity to go back to the drawing board. The alliance has recently approached several people with an interest in signing on to the project, he said.

"We have been talking about the year of reconciliation and doing things together, so maybe this can be tangible evidence of that," Robinson-McNeese said. "Maybe we can join together as a large group of churches and push forward this initiative for the community center."

Even though the Boys & Girls Club has refocused on a new plan for the east-side community center, Robinson-McNeese said, the alliance would rather continue with what they initially envisioned for the project.

"The Ministerial Alliance would like to see the original plan with a much larger community center with broader utilities," he said. "Right now we're thinking of going in a different direction."

Contact Amanda Robert at arobert@illinoistimes.com.

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