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The historic Sellwood Community Center may not be doomed just yet...an effort is underway

DAVID F. ASHTON - Friends of Sellwood Community Center Committee members, from left - Nancy Walsh, Julie Currin, Chair Gail Hoffnagle, and Jason Deignan - explored SMILEs plans to continue operating the Community Center, independently of the Parks Bureau. When the Portland City Council's budget hearing ended on May 23, it was very clear that valiant efforts of volunteers to keep the Sellwood Community Center (SCC) open and funded had failed.

While City Commissioners didn't specifically say they were shuttering the historic center, they did make it clear that staff funding through Portland Parks & Recreation (PP&R) was at an end. "PP&R will not provide staff or programming at the Center after August 31, which is considered to be the end of summer," confirmed PP&R spokesperson Mark Ross.

"Summer programming at Sellwood Community Center will continue [until then], thanks to transition funding City Council dedicated in the budget for the coming Fiscal Year (which is July 1-June 30 annually)," Ross told THE BEE. "Sellwood neighbors have asked PP&R about the possibility of taking over operations at the Sellwood Community Center; we have met with them, and welcome them to submit a proposal."

"The SMILE Friends of Sellwood Community Center Committee has met a couple of times with people from the city, trying to figure out how we can keep the Center open with the same type of programs, and the same quality of programs," confirmed the committee's Chair, Gail Hoffnagle, before a May 29 meeting held at the Center.

The Friends Committee does have resources, Hoffnagle reminded. "It's the trust fund endowment by Brooklyn resident Helen Hiczun – she was horrified that the Center was regularly threatened with closure – and willed the proceeds from the sale of her house to SMILE [the Sellwood and Westmoreland neighborhood association], instead of the City of Portland, with the money specifically earmarked to keeping the Center open."

Their hope is that the City will agree to sell them the Center for a nominal fee, much as Portland Fire & Rescue sold what became "SMILE Station" to SMILE – the "Sellwood Moreland Improvement League" – close to thirty years ago.

Some 30 people came to the May 29 meeting to discuss what could be done to keep the Community Center operational. Hoffnagle laid out the preliminary strategy – but stressed that, before any action could be taken or expenditures be made, the SMILE Board must approve, since SMILE is the entity to which the dedicated Hiczun funds were willed. After the meeting, she reported, "A group of people have volunteered to work on pieces of our puzzle."

At a Special SMILE Board meeting at SMILE Station on June 12, Hoffnagle began by telling the Board, "[SMILE now] needs to establish how it intends to run the Center, and with whom to run it".

The SMILE Board had already agreed that it has a moral and legal obligation to devote the dedicated funds to this effort – since the funds were bequeathed to SMILE specifically to assist in keeping the Sellwood Community Center open.

"We cannot use the funds for any another unrelated purpose," as Pat Hainley observed at the meeting, "and now is clearly the time to use them." Hainley further suggested that the Friends Committee could become a separate nonprofit corporation running the Center, overseen by SMILE.

At that point Hoffnagle introduced attorney Ashlee Espaillat, who had offered to provide to the project pro-bono legal services – limited, however, to incorporation of the committee, and negotiating with the City for the right to occupy and potentially buy the Community Center building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

"Goal one", said Hoffnagle, "is the right to be in the building, and to acquire the building."

SMILE Vice President Simon Fulford inquired about a business plan for the Center; Hoffnagle and Nancy Walsh, both retired PP&R Community Center employees, responded, "Much of the plan is already done, and we are making great progress on it." There was then unanimous support by the Board for authorizing the Friends group a startup budget of $10,000.

Kim Borcherding, a former SMILE Board Member who is a member of the Friends of Sellwood Community Center Committee, said that the committee, if successful in negotiations with the city, is thinking of changing the name of the Center to "Sellwood Community House", to better clarify its separation from the Parks Department, and its local operation.

"We have a lot to do, and a short time in which to do it; so, I'm encouraged by the many people, each bringing expertise and experience, who are volunteering to help us," Hoffnagle remarked to THE BEE after the meeting.

The committee is now trying to identify the various people who signed up for fall classes at the Community Center before the city announced plans to close it, to bring them up to date and determine if they are still interested in enrolling in such classes.

To keep up to date with their progress, and to respond to the committee, visit its page on the SMILE website – tinyurl.com/y432h9as


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