Officials from the Christian Center say they already have plans for a new building and new programming on the West Side.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The city is set to ask the West Side Neighborhood Initiative to flesh out the details of possibly building a new youth center.
The City Council's Economic and Community Development Subcommittee is recommending that a petition from Valerie Hamilton to construct the new center on Dewey Avenue be sent to the initiative. Hamilton is asking for the city to use property currently eyed for a park.
City officials say there is very little possibility of building on that land so a new location needs to be found. And that there are other community groups that need to be included in the conversation.
"The West Side Initiative may be a good forum to capture the dialogue and different locations that could be considered," said Director of Community Development Deanna Ruffer.
That referral, however, wasn't what Hamilton wanted. Hamilton had already engaged engineers and construction companies for quotes and plans. She organized a fundraising arm to get the process rolling. And now, the city is asking her to slow down and bring in more voices.
"The center is going to happen," Hamilton said. "I'm not going to talk for another six years."
The community center on the West Side has been an ongoing issue for years. Hamilton has organized mentoring and sports programs for the youth on the West Side and Jerome Edgerton launched a program as well. But they didn't have a home.
"Our youth and our young adults are on a path to destruction and the question remains, what are we going to do about it?" Edgerton said.
The lots on Dewey Avenue had recently been cleared to make way for the West Side Riverway Park project. Hamilton asked Councilor at Large Melissa Mazzeo to file a petition asking for some of that land to build the center.
"She's really got this drive and passion to do something. Her family is leaning toward a youth center, a facility where youth can go and do a plethora of things," Mazzeo said.
Hamilton wants to use 4,000 square-feet of that property for what she is calling the Alpha and Omega Youth Center. She went and got quotes to erect the steel-frame building, engaged with Hill Engineers to design it, and put together a fundraising arm. She envisions it to host after-school programs, have a gymnasium, dance studio to teach classes, a studio for music lessons, have a theater and working with local organizations such as Jacob's Pillow and Barrington Stage to teach classes.
"I'm not here to compete with the Boys Club, I am not here to compete with the Christian Center, I am trying to save lives," Hamilton said, later adding that none of the services she wants to offer is readily accessible in that area.
But would it duplicate services?
Ellen Merritt, executive director at the Christian Center, said her group is already working on a similar project. Charles "Tack" Burbank has been raising money to begin a new program to help guide local children from birth to college.
"What's happening in the West Side community is absolutely not OK and does need to change. The Christian Center is working on a plan that includes building a new building that would be utilized by the west side community and any other community in Pittsfield," Merritt said.
"I think a lot of kids in our neighborhoods don't have options the way other children do."
Treasurer Betsy Sherman said there is a lot of poverty in the area and the new construction and program will be aimed at providing opportunities to those children growing up in that environment. The program replicates what has been done in Buffalo, N.Y., and elsewhere. It supports families from prior to when a baby is born to prepare, gives parental support, and daycare options.
"We do need to have something in our city where children who live in poverty, who don't have the opportunity kids who grow up in the middle class and upper-middle-class neighborhoods have," Merritt said.
Erin Sullivan from Berkshire Children and Families got involved in the conversation and said there are multiple organizations providing similar services. She told the City Council that her organization will make a conscious effort to outreach and address issues like transportation to make sure the west side youth can attend the youth programs that are offered elsewhere.
"The youth organizations are very committed to try to increase outreach to the west side neighborhoods," Sullivan said.
Meanwhile, Ward 6 Councilor John Krol said he has been working with stakeholders for 18 months on a project down there -- and that has included conversations with former Gov. Deval Patrick. He said a lot of work is happening "behind the scenes" on it. However, Mazzeo asked why people from the West Side are unaware of the 18-month long conversation.
"It is a process that is ongoing. People who are involved and engaged in the West Side are informed about it," Krol said.
All of the groups, however, do have the same mission and same thought. It is more a matter of how to achieve those ends.
This isn't a debate the city hasn't been in before. The West Side youth center project has been an issue for years and continues to get some momentum, and then fall by the wayside. Krol said the city had a consultant around 2010 who crafted a similar concept and nearly got to the point of construction documents until funding was cut off.
That concept was in a different location.
Nate Joyner of the city's Office of Community Development said there is little ability to build on the Dewey Avenue lots Hamilton is eying.
The entire parcel is in a floodplain and while there were houses there before, they were built before the passage of the Wetlands Protection Act. Now there are numerous legal and environmental hurdles in the way to build something new, Joyner said.
"These restrictions limit the type and the amount of work that can be done in this area," he said.
Joyner knows how difficult it can be because he worked on the permitting for the West Side Riverway Project. The plan calls for walking paths and a footbridge over the Housatonic River. But, even that was extremely limited because there can only be little impervious space.
"This has been identified as a focus for open space and recreation for the river," Joyner said.
The park plan dates back to at least 2005, maybe even before. The area had been a mix of blighted homes and space for dumping. The city has since acquired a dozen or so parcels of land, cleared out the space, and planted grass. The state came in and planted new trees. And now, the city is waiting for another state grant to build the park -- likely in 2018. Until then, it will remain open space for the residents to use.
"There may be other suitable locations in the West Side and we can help identify them," Joyner said of the youth center.
Edgerton and Hamilton both emphasized how ideal those parcels are for access to the West Side neighborhood. They said priorities have changed since the park concept was first proposed.
"No matter how much we please the eye, if the people do not change the problems will continue -- but look fresh," Edgerton said.
And they said they will certainly be looking to partner with other youth service organizations in the area.
The subcommittee debated on whether or not to put the West Side Initiative in charge of further fleshing out the programming or forming a new committee. Ultimately, the subcommittee felt the West Side Initiative was a better place to bring all of the groups together.
While Hamilton didn't want it to go there because she doesn't want to lose momentum, Krol said the project needs to have everybody on the same page. The community is too small in the area for the youth services to operate in silos and still have a successful project, he said.
"This youth center is not going to succeed unless all different entities in the West Side are involved," Krol said.
Mazzeo said she was confident in Hamilton's passion and drive that even with sending it to the West Side Neighborhood Initiative, not much momentum will be lost. But, it will ensure all parties are involved and the best plan possible is presented.
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