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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Nonprofit group to take over community center operations

East Central organization will still receive subsidy from city

Mary Sumler, Aveline Ebright and Olga Schuh participate in a chair yoga class Tuesday at the East Central Community Center. (Dan Pelle)
Mary Sumler, Aveline Ebright and Olga Schuh participate in a chair yoga class Tuesday at the East Central Community Center. (Dan Pelle)

The nonprofit group that used to advise the East Central Community Center is about to be placed in charge of the neighborhood institution.

The East Central Community Organization was the only group that responded to a request by the city for plans to take over the center’s operations, and the Spokane City Council is expected to approve the transfer to the group next week.

“This was a great opportunity to really have an impact on the quality of life in our neighborhood,” said Chris Venne, president of the organization’s board.

The community center, 500 S. Stone St., opened in 1979 on the site of the former Edison Elementary School and remained a department of city government even as other community centers opened and expanded as separate nonprofit agencies.

City leaders have talked for years about transferring the community center from the city payroll. But it wasn’t until the resignation last year of the center’s longtime director that serious steps were taken to make the switch.

“It will be difficult and challenging, but it is necessary,” said Kathy Armstrong, the interim director of the center, who decided that she won’t apply to work at the center after the transfer. “With the city’s budget shortfall, East Central would always be very vulnerable.”

The East Central Community Center includes a senior center that served the second-highest number of lunches among senior centers in Spokane County last year. It also is the home of a day care center for adults with developmental disabilities. Several other organizations sponsor programs at the center, including ones aimed at nutrition, fighting homelessness and assisting refugees.

Venne said the organization plans to maintain the center’s current services with an operations budget of about $700,000 next year. That’s down from nearly $1 million this year. Venne said the organization will achieve savings, in part, by reducing wages and benefits based on a “nonprofit model.” Until now, as a branch of city government, the center has paid city wages and benefits.

Mayor David Condon has proposed giving the center $380,000 next year, down from about $500,000 the city will spend on the center this year.

It will be up to the East Central Community Organization to come up with the balance needed to operate the center.

The city also subsidizes the West Central and Northeast Community centers but at a considerably lower amount. This year West Central, for example, received $100,000 and Northeast received $140,000, said Jonathan Mallahan, the city’s community and neighborhood services director.

While the goal of city leaders is to subsidize East Central at an amount similar to the other community centers, officials say they realize it will take time for the East Central Community Organization to develop new lines of revenue. 

The center’s 12 employees have been issued layoff notices by the city, and the organization will be in charge of hiring a new staff.

“We would be very interested in people who have related experience, and obviously the people who work there have related experiences,” Venne said.

Councilman Jon Snyder said the city should consider providing money to the center so it can build space to rent to other nonprofits. That model is used by other community centers to help provide operating revenue.

“It never had to rely on rental income,” Venne told the council at a meeting on Monday. “There is a lot of space that is not intelligently used.” 

Venne said the organization hopes to eventually expand offerings for children over time, especially after-school and summer programs similar to what’s available at other community centers.

“They have managed to keep their centers going with a lot of community support and not a lot of city support, and, to me, that’s a more sustainable model,” Venne said.

The East Central Community Organization was founded in 1980 and was the center’s advisory board.

It also acted as the center’s nonprofit arm until board members began questioning accounting practices at the center, organization members say. The center’s former director, Diane Jackson, created a new board and displaced the organization in 2009. In 2011, Jackson resigned following disclosures that she allowed a city employee to draw bigger paychecks than she was due by improperly claiming more hours than she’d actually worked.

Since the organization was forced to break ties with the center, it has focused on housing and a community garden.

It owns the Rose Apartments and Friendship Gardens, both low-income apartments in East Central.

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