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Dont abandon Westside Community Center idea

Does anybody know what’s to become of Westside School (formerly Madras High School, just south of the new City Hall)? And does anybody know what’s to become of the idea of a “Westside Community Center” in the old schoo l— which a year or two ago was the subject of news articles, discussions, and meetings? Now that the initial excitement over that possibility has subsided, with no action in view, does anybody care?

One partial answer to such questions is that a substantial part of Westside is already being used. Kids Club, High Desert ESD and “Family University” programs are active tenants of the 509-J School District in the facility, and the community is the better for it. But it’s widely understood that the school district would like to sell Westside, not for commercial development, per se, but if possible for community use, consistent with the educational design and history of the facility. The fact that with the opening in 2014 of the new K-8 school at Warm Springs, some programs now at Westside will probably move into vacated space at the middle school, makes questions about the future of Westside that much more urgent.

In 2012, the school district commissioned the Center for Innovative School Facilities in Portland to make a comprehensive study of Westside in relation to community needs and interests, and make recommendations. After finding that Westside has been well-maintained and is in very good condition overall, CISF concluded that it should be reactivated as a designated “community center,” with the aim of supporting youths, families and their development, and enhancing quality of life in the community.

The report went on to recommend that the center’s primary tenants should include Kids Club, High Desert ESD, and the Jefferson County Historical Society/Museum, and noted that such a multifunctional facility might also house elements of Parks and Recreation, the Aquatic Center, public and private early childhood programs, and so on. And the CISF report concluded that “the county has both the need and resources to take responsibility for Westside ... Ownership should transition to the county and they should act as a community service coordinator. Jefferson County is the most logical partner and land developer of the Westside building site.”

Initially it seemed that, urged on by Commissioner Mike Ahern, the county administration was moving to act on these recommendations, and buy Westside. But in late summer of this year the commissioners shifted their focus to another project — the planning and construction of a new Jefferson County Courthouse, to be located just southwest of the new Madras City Hall, with some of the cost to be covered by the state of Oregon. Abruptly, the county’s acquisition of Westside for the social and cultural betterment of the community, in line with the CISF report, seemed to drop into limbo.

My aim in these comments is not to question the reasons for building a new courthouse now. The present courthouse was poorly designed and unevenly constructed, and by all accounts needs to be replaced. And the special (and presumably short-term) opportunity to take advantage of state funds for construction should probably not be missed. But, what about the special opportunities for all of us vested in Westside School and the idea of a community center there?

My immediate “angle” on these questions is on behalf of the Jefferson County Historical Society. Last year, we closed our museum in the Old Courthouse, because of the condition of the building and its serious disadvantages as a museum site, and since then have been moving the county’s historical treasures into storage at Westside. Our hope and understanding through all this has been that, as part of a “Westside Community Center,” we would be able to relocate the museum in the library area of the south wing, a very attractive site offering everything — public accessibility, heating, display space, work and storage room — that we have sorely lacked upstairs in the Old Courthouse. For this to happen, the South Wing will require some renovations—modular heating as in most of the rest of Westside, lavatory upgrades, and fire suppression. Whether federal “block grant” money for this work would be available now is unclear — but what is very clear is that in Westside’s current limbo state, federal, state, and foundation grants can’t be applied for, and serious planning can’t go forward.

Again, this impasse is not just frustrating for the Historical Society (especially so with the county’s centennial coming in 2014!), but for any and all organizations interested in creating a community center in Westside. Those of us who have been thinking about and discussing what the center might be, can foresee really wonderful opportunities for the betterment of our community, extending far beyond Madras into the county. With Kids Club doing their indispensable thing on one end, and the county historical society offering kid-and-family-oriented exhibits and programs on the other end, and MAC/Parks and Recreation, “Family University,” and other family-supportive programs busy in between, it’s exciting to imagine what a lively, interactive, and stimulating place our venerable old Madras High School could be!

But in the nature of things, such opportunities for the public good won’t stay around very long, and nothing is likely to go forward to realize the dream of a community center here until the building and property are actually purchased. If the City of Madras can’t — as city officials are saying — afford to buy it, could it partner with the county? If need be, could such a partnership be joined by a major foundation, like Oregon Community Foundation, the Meyer Memorial Trust, the Washington Foundation, or the Ford Family Foundation? Why not?

If you can imagine what practical good a community center in Westside could do for the city/county population, and if you have suggestions about what the center ought to include, and if you have ideas and opinions about how to get the whole endeavor out of its current limbo and into action, please contact city officials and county commissioners without delay. And when a public interest meeting is announced early next year, be sure to attend, and speak out. The opportunities at hand are too good for us to waste!

Jerry Ramsey is the president of the Jefferson County Historical Society.



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