by William Stimson

From a distance, it makes no sense at all. Residents of one of the state's poorest neighborhoods are protesting, not the loss of services for the poor, but an expansion of those services.

The West Central Neighborhood Council voted twice to withhold its support for a project that would more than double the West Central Community Center's services to women and infant care, preschool day care, and programs to keep school kids occupied through potentially dangerous after-school hours.

The resistance comes in a neighborhood that has been famous for its cooperation in similar bootstrap efforts. In 1994, after two children were kidnapped and murdered, the neighborhood responded by creating an anti-crime effort called "Cop Shop" that is still studied by cities across the country as a model of neighborhood cooperation.

The situation only gets more curious when you consider the people involved. The Community Center director, Don Higgins, is widely considered a philosopher of neighborhood action, a well-educated innovator of midnight basketball sessions, trash cleanups and anti-television violence campaigns. On the other side of the argument is Kathy Reid, the godmother of the West Central Community Center, who 23 years ago had more to do with starting it than any other individual.

The two sides can't even agree on the bluntest of basic facts. When the Spokesman-Review invited them to explain their positions in articles on its editorial page, Reid wrote that the West Central neighborhood was opposing the community center because expanding would mean tearing down "dozens of affordable homes." The next day Nancy Holmes, chairman of the community center board, said expansion "requires the removal of two houses, one of which the community center owns."

Somehow Spokane's showpiece of neighborhood cooperation is off-track.

Collision Course -- Perhaps "off-track" isn't the best metaphor for the circumstances. A better image is two groups on the same track -- but heading toward each other from opposite directions.

The track they have in common is improving the neighborhood. One group, the West Central Community Center board, seeks to improve the poverty-stricken area with much-expanded programs. The other group, which includes a growing number of people willing to invest in the neighborhood's classic old houses, is wary of any plans that make their area a convenient place for dumping "social services."

The expansion of the West Central Community Center has been a long time in the making. It started a decade ago with President Clinton's program to cut back welfare. If unemployed people were going to train for jobs and go back to work, they would need help with childcare, since private childcare would be beyond their means. So the federal government allocated money to bolster such services in neighborhoods like West Central.

State government is contributing, too, because the only obvious alternatives to building more prisons (at $150 million each) are programs that stop criminal careers before they begin. Head Start, with its ability to detect early such things as child abuse and learning disabilities, besides giving education a boost, is universally considered the best way to do that.

A center providing such services in Spokane's poorest neighborhood is also a favorite of Mayor John Powers' "One Spokane" anti-poverty effort.

Finally, the neighborhood itself endorsed the idea. On Dec. 12, 2001, Higgins, the community center's director, presented the expansion plan to the West Central Neighborhood Council. The council added its support in the form of an allocation of $35,000 from its federal block grant funds.

Thus armed with federal, state, city and neighborhood council approval, Higgins proceeded with the development routine, which included placing a public notice of the expansion in the newspaper. That notice set the other train in motion.

George Craig moved to the West Central Neighborhood two years ago because he loved its quirky little tree-lined streets and classic early 20th-century houses. Craig masterfully renovated one of these and settled into his ideal neighborhood. But he was aware that refurbishing a house was not enough to make a good place to live. With its low rents, West Central, as he and everybody else knows, had long been the dumping place for the city's halfway houses, sex offenders and parolees.

Craig was reading the newspaper one morning and saw Higgins' official notice saying there would be a $4.5 million expansion of the community center. Craig wondered why, once again, the West Central seemed to be only neighborhood in the city willing to accommodate such social service agencies. He went right down to the community center and began asking questions, to which there were never very satisfactory answers. At first, he said, they wouldn't let him attend a board meeting. He insisted and was allowed to attend. He asked for information and they said it wasn't available in the form he wanted. He insisted and got it. "It's like pulling teeth. They say, 'We can't do that,' then they say, 'We can do that.'

"My opinion," Craig continues, "is basically that they spent years planning, and in their minds they've already decided how, when, what and where, so for us to come up and question it now, they feel like we're challenging them. We just want to know what's happening in our neighborhood."

He began going to neighborhood council meetings, and his questions about who was making these decisions struck a spark. The community center expansion, endorsed by the council nine months earlier, now became the dominant and sometimes the only topic of discussion. Old neighborhood council members fell away and a new, aroused group came into control. This reconstituted board voted to change policy and withhold its support.

Who's in Charge? -- A member of the old neighborhood council, Andy Rathbun, continued to argue for the center. Rathbun, a full-time navigator in the Air National Guard with the rank of major, is the owner of one the neighborhood's classic houses. He is in much the same category of middle-class homeowner as Craig, but he sees the issue entirely differently. He believes adding the new services will improve the neighborhood because it will "give people the tools they need to get off welfare."

But Rathbun saw the board turned from enthusiastic supporter of the expansion to fiery opponent, mostly, he believes, by unfounded suspicions. "I would be fiery if I got all my information from George Craig."

For example, says Rathbun, Craig challenged the need to tear down houses and demanded some plan for putting the parking lot elsewhere. But there are only so many alternatives. The architect drew parking spaces infringing on Cannon Park to suit him, but no one, including Rathbun, actually thought that should happen. When that alternative appeared in drawings, Craig turned it against the board. "He had people out there protesting, 'Don't take our park!'" says Rathbun. "It's comical! He knew we weren't going to do that."

"George is my neighbor and my friend," Rathbun says. "I can't understand why he's against this. I think he believes this project will attract undesirables."

Craig's campaign against the center led him to a key ally in Kathy Reid. In the mid-1970s, it was Reid who battled city officials to use federal Community Development funds to establish a center. "We kept raising hell," Reid recalls. "A council member, I think it was Roger Anderson, said I bullied, I threatened. And I did.

"I have absolutely nothing against the West Central Community Center," Reid continues. "I built it. I'm responsible for it being there. It's my pride and joy. I have grave and serious concerns with the way it's being administered."

When Reid talks about the center, the issues of day care (she fully supports expanded day care) and the loss of neighborhood houses quickly fall away. In her Spokesman-Review article, Reid cited the loss of "dozens of affordable houses." Dozens? There were definitely indications, she insists, that 16 homes might have been threatened under one of the plans. But dozens? "I guess I mis-spoke," Reid admits.

Reid's real complaint is that few members of the Community Center Board actually live in the neighborhood where it is located. She cites the example of a Community Center board member who appeared at a neighborhood meeting to talk. He offended everyone when it became apparent he didn't know the streets of the neighborhood; he admitted he just knew enough to get to the Community Center for board meetings.

"You're dealing with wealthy people who just don't get it," says Reid. "They say things that are outrageous and they don't even know." Reid would like to see a requirement that a majority of board members live in the West Central Neighborhood. Now only four of the 18 members live in the neighborhood.

Higgins' response to this is that it is not a neighborhood center but a community center -- one of only four in the whole city. The West Central board is representative because eight of the members of the board live in the larger North Side "service area." Another four work in that area -- including, for example, a teacher in one of the area's schools and a county judge. Other board members, says Higgins, bring in the kind of general support the center needs, with members from Avista, Washington Trust Bank, Spokane Community College, School District 81 and other influential members of the larger community.

Higgins himself is dispirited by the year-long feud. "This has been the worst year of my life," he says. "I've always seen myself as challenging the status quo -- a change agent. After 22 years of service, to be demonized for doing something that is such common sense is incomprehensible to me, and very painful."

The reason the West Central controversy is so perplexing is because the real issue is not houses or child care, but control -- specifically whether the neighborhood that spawned the community center has enough influence over it. That element of this skirmish likely won't go away any time soon.

But as the smoke begins to lift from the immediate controversy, the neighborhood appears in better shape than one might suspect from all the clamor. One silver lining is an energized bunch of citizens, who are at least taking an interest in the direction of their neighborhood. And the project itself finally appears ready to move ahead. The two houses that will be razed are not the among the neighborhood's stock of historic jewels. In their stead, dozens of families will have new access to health and child care. No one really has much to say against that. Even George Craig admits that a day care center is not the equivalent of a halfway house. He would still like to see figures showing the neighborhood is the primary beneficiary, but he adds: "Let me put it this way: If we need it, we should have it."

The West Central Neighborhood became one of the state's poorest areas because a half-century ago, absentee owners and transient renters weren't keeping an eye on what was going on. At least that's one problem the West Central neighborhood no longer has.

Publication date: 07/17/03

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