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East Central Community Center makes some blacks feel excluded

Several black residents say their community has been ignored in the new operations of the East Central Community Center.

Sandy Williams, Eastern Washington representative for the Washington Commission on African American Affairs, said following a complaint about the center by the Rev. Happy Watkins she has interviewed dozens of residents about how they feel about the center since it was taken over by the East Central Community Organization.

“The feedback from the community overwhelmingly was that people are feeling iced out and excluded,” Williams said.

The commission has organized a meeting for the community to discuss their concerns with a city representative and representatives from the center at 9 this morning at the center, 500 S. Stone St.

Center representatives say they’ve improved operations despite a significantly lower budget and that they strive to work with all members of the community. They say that complaints have come from only a few people.

The community center, which opened in 1979, was a part of city government until last year, when it was turned over to the East Central Community Organization during city spending cuts. The change was made to relieve the city budget and was presented as an issue of fairness since neither of the other two large community centers in Spokane were run by the city.

Watkins, pastor of New Hope Baptist Church, said the center used to be a place for kids in the neighborhood where they could get “fatherly advice” and help with homework.

But he said the center has become so obsessed with the budget that many in the community feel shut out.

“Our young people don’t have a place to go,” Watkins said. “The center has been a refuge for street kids.”

Center officials acknowledge some growing pains but stress that they’ve increased services on a smaller budget since they took over the center’s operation. Chris Venne, president of the East Central Community Center’s board, noted that youth programs even when the center was still part of the city were extremely limited since 2004, following the Department of Health and Human Services’ decision to revoke the city’s license to provide day care after a child was left unattended in a van.

This year, the center brought back a summer youth program that served 23 youths, Venne said. It also served 50 children a day in a program that provided free breakfasts and lunches. The center, he said, also had basketball and tennis camps and has ongoing judo, tennis and volleyball programs. The center also has significantly increased the number of people served by its food bank, Venne said, from 5,163 in all of 2012 to 7,029 from January through September this year.

He said center officials will listen to residents’ concerns and hope that those with concerns are open to hearing about the center’s accomplishments.

“We want a center where every group feels welcomed,” Venne said.

Watkins said some concerns about the center arose when community members requested to hold a funeral for a Vietnam veteran and longtime resident of the East Central neighborhood. But the organization came up with a price to hold the event that was felt to be excessive.

Venne said he has apologized for the way the request was handled and said it occurred early in the organization’s running of the center when there were concerns that it may not be able to meet budget targets. He said the center has revised its policy as a result.

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