by Pia K. Hansen

Parking seems to always be a controversial issue here in town. Of course, there's the River Park Square parking garage and its courtroom drama. Now it looks like the West Central Community Center has gotten caught in its own parking controversy, not over a huge public-private development project, but over the parking spaces needed for a day-care and Head Start facility the center is trying to build.

First, a little background: Back in 1999, three community centers in Spokane got together and launched the Early Childhood Learning and Development Child Care Access project, facilitated by the Health Improvement Partnership and sponsored by the Regional Chamber of Commerce. Under the program, the Northeast Community Center opened an expanded center three years ago, and East Central has added on to its day-care facility as well. Now some say the time has come for West Central Community Center to be the next chapter in the success story.

West Central plans to build an 18,000-square-foot addition that would add 104 slots of high-quality, full-day Head Start and child care services.

It's a $4 million project, and though some fundraising remains, the job is doable.

"The first year, we got $100,000 from the state," says Don Higgins, director of the West Central Community Center. "Then, in 2002, we got another $500,000, and we also got $1 million from the federal government."

The Emerson-Garfield Neighborhood Council and the West Central Neighborhood Council -- the community center serves both neighborhoods -- each gave the project $35,000 as well.

Sounds simple enough, but not everyone in the West Central neighborhood is excited about the project. Call it a case of NIMBY, or a power struggle between the community center and the neighborhood council -- call it whatever you want, but there has been significant opposition from West Central residents.

"It really astounds me that there is opposition to a facility like this," says Higgins. "We are doing what we can to answer all the questions people have."

Location, Location -- Higgins refuses to speculate on the motives of his critics, but it's clear that he has had to answer a lot of questions from the neighborhood lately. At the top of that list is the parking issue. The new facility would house a Head Start program, a day-care center, before- and after-school programs, and -- hopefully some time down the road -- dental and medical clinics as well. Yet some neighbors are not sold.

"We have gone through five different designs to best address the parking issue," says Higgins. "There is one design that is broadly accepted now, I believe, and that is the one that would require the purchase of three houses in the area on Belt Street, between Spofford and Augusta." This location is immediately across the street from the park, a clear benefit to the new center and to the children who will be using it.

Some West Central residents have suggested that Higgins go to the Parks Department and ask for land to accommodate the parking lot. "I don't know, that doesn't seem to be a very forthcoming way of doing this," he says.

At one point, rumor had it that as many as 12 houses would have to be torn down to make room for the new facility. "We were fighting the rumor mill on that one," says Higgins. "We don't have the power of condemnation. What's caused the confusion behind this concern is that the opposition to the project started asking these questions before we were ready to answer them. We didn't have a site, and we didn't have a design."

But West Central Neighborhood Council co-chair Rose Matisse says residents have some very real concerns about this location -- concerns based on more than rumor.

"Some people on Augusta didn't want a parking lot there. They were worried about what is going on in parking lots after dark and things of that nature," she says, adding that some residents in that area didn't want to sell their homes to West Central either.

"They probably wanted more for their property than what the community center would pay," she says.

So does she like the proposed location?

"Well, that one house right there on the corner is kind of trashy-looking anyway, so it wouldn't hurt getting rid of that," says Matisse, who lives on Summit Boulevard, West Central's upscale edge. "If they put in trees and shrubs it would probably look better."

But she would rather see the Head Start program, the day-care center and the medical clinics located in the West Central Neighborhood's "center," which is around Broadway and Walnut, according to the city's centers and corridors growth management plan.

"I was part of the stakeholder group. I spent three years rewriting that damned comprehensive plan, and Higgins is not even talking about expanding [in the designated] center," says Matisse. "We are supposed to bring activity down to our neighborhood center, to get traffic down there and businesses, to encourage walking and all that. If they are spending $4 million on this project, they might as well build a new facility down there."

But it's not that simple, says Higgins.

"Some are under the impression that the grant from HUD is not site-specific, that we can build the facility anywhere. They are also saying that there are more low-income children in the southern part of the neighborhood, so they want the facility in the southern part of the neighborhood," says Higgins. "But the HUD money is site-specific. If we don't use it here, at the community center, it goes back to Washington, D.C."

Is There a Need? -- Higgins says West Central surveyed the neighborhood asking if people were willing to support a new facility, even if it meant taking out five homes.

"The support for the project was overwhelming," he says. "Within eight blocks of the community center, we have almost 200 children in need of these services, and we'll still just be offering 100 slots."

Research supports the need for the expanded facility. One WSU-sponsored study found that the West Central Neighborhood is home to 801 children between birth and five years old. Of those children, 35 percent (or 280) live in poverty. Young children who live below the federal poverty level are eligible for the Head Start program, but they can't always find open slots. In West Central, only 42 percent of the children eligible are actually enrolled in Head Start.

"The services we'll be able to provide are to the low-income children in the entire area," says Higgins, adding that research by the Regional Health District shows that one of the primary reasons parents pick a specific day care is location.

"They want it to be close to where they live," he says. "Some residents have suggested that we should get local employers to provide day care instead of having it here, but that solution has been tried in a few places in and around downtown Spokane, and it doesn't seem to quite work here."

But Matisse is skeptical, and she doesn't believe that the children with the biggest needs live right next to the existing community center.

Public health officials agree that access to safe and good quality day care is a huge issue, especially for low-income families. The expanded day care and Head Start program at the Northeast Community Center has been a huge success for that neighborhood, officials say, not only in alleviating a need for child care but also in helping low-income families access some of the other programs and services that are out there.

"The co-location of services is one of the most effective ways of addressing poverty," says Higgins. "This is why we are taking this approach." He's hoping to be able to eventually add a Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program to the site as well as a job-training center.

Poverty and low-income advocates agree that centralization of services gives the community more bang for its bucks.

"It's key," says Cathy McGinty, program coordinator for Voices for Opportunity, Income, Childcare, Education and Support (VOICES): "I'm a West Central resident, and I'm always in support of anything that can help people move up and forward."

McGinty adds that the proposed location of the expanded facility makes perfect sense to her, being that it's on a bus line and located in a neighborhood where the need for affordable day care is great.

"Some parents have to take the bus across town with their kids," says McGinty. "It's always hard getting the kids up at 5 am to get on the bus, and it's even harder now when it's winter."

McGinty says that whether her neighbors support the new facility depends on whether they need the services.

"I'd say the support for this project depends largely on who you talk to," she explains. "The low-income people have a great sense of support, as do people who have had a great need in the past. Some who haven't had the need in a while may have forgotten how important and how much of a difference these facilities can make in a person's life."

Who's in Charge? -- This is not the last word on the expansion of the West Central Community Center. More community meetings are to come, but ultimately the board of the West Central Community Center -- not the West Central Neighborhood Council -- will take a proposal to the city. That may rankle members of the neighborhood council. Discussions about giving the neighborhood councils more power over decisions affecting them have ebbed and flowed over the years. Currently there is a push to get more coordination among the councils and the city council, so that neighborhood concerns can be heard more clearly.

"We have made presentations to the neighborhood councils and held several both formal and informal meetings with them," says Higgins. "We will have at least one more community meeting on the design of the center, then we'll got to the city for the permit process."

Matisse says she's not opposed to helping work things out, but she insists that West Central should follow the guidelines of the comprehensive plan. She also says all the fighting is a sign of a larger problem.

"We have 15 or 25 entities in this neighborhood -- COPS and what have you -- and they don't work together at all," says Matisse. "No one knows who to call or where to go. No one talks to anyone else."

Matisse accuses Higgins of being a politician who's trying to claim power and funds for his own center, without consideration for what's best for the neighborhood.

But Higgins maintains that everyone has had their say, and that it's only natural to expand on the existing community center. He says he's determined to focus on the future.

"Our primary commitment is to the families of the neighborhood, and these programs are exactly what people are asking for," he says. "More than 400 kids in our neighborhoods need these services, and it is our commitment to expand the center to provide the needed facilities."

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