In her retrospective of the history of THE BEE, on the occasion of its 100th anniversary in September of 2006, neighborhood historian and BEE historical writer Eileen G. Fitzsimons reported, "By 1910 Sellwood had the first neighborhood YMCA, branch library, and public swimming pool in the city."The historic Sellwood Park public swimming pool is again open for the summer as you read this, and although it is changed locations more than once, there is still a branch of the Multnomah County Library on the corner of S.E. 13th and Bidwell Street.
Although it was not long a YMCA, that building is still standing, and through the efforts of SMILE and Eileen herself, it is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. For most of its history it has been owned by Portland Parks and Recreation, and has been known as the Sellwood Community Center, on the corner of S.E. Spokane Street and 15th Avenue in Sellwood. And now, just a year short of its own 100 th anniversary, Portland Parks and Recreation has broken two promises and announced it will shut down permanently on September 1.
The two promises were, first, one from the Mayor, made last year, that all the regularly-threatened-with-closure small Community Centers in the city would have two more years of service, while the city conducted studies regarding their future; and second, in recent months, the Sellwood Community Center has been taking reservations for its childcare classes starting September 1.
With the regular annual threats, for many years now, that the Sellwood and other small Community Centers could be shut down to help resolve issues in the PP&R budget, residents and patrons have had regularly to rally to its defense. They have pointed out that in a city seeking "walkable neighborhoods" the nearest large Community Centers are unwalkable distances away, and the classes and services relied upon by local residents – often those least able to afford alternatives – are not otherwise available.
But the current leadership of PP&R seems more committed than ever to focus on large Community Centers – from which much of the city's residents are quite distant. The nearest one of these to Inner Southeast is at S.E. 72nd and Harold Street.
Because of these annual threats of closure, the oldest Neighborhood Association in the city, SMILE – an acronym for the Sellwood Moreland Improvement League; it serves both Sellwood and Westmoreland, and probably should have the acronym SWIL! – years ago formed a new committee called Friends of Sellwood Community Center, with the idea of trying to create a financial cushion for the Center to fill city-perceived deficits in its operation. Sales of cookbooks failed to build much of a cushion, and instead the committee turned to trying to build an endowment large enough to provide permanent supplemental funding to operate the Center.
Although raising funds for an endowment remained a challenge, one resident of the Brooklyn neighborhood – Helen Hiczun, who regularly attended yoga classes at the Sellwood Community Center and wanted it to continue in operation permanently – made SMILE a beneficiary of her will, by leaving it the proceeds from the sale of her house, with the instructions to dedicate the funds to "keeping the Sellwood Community Center open".Prior to investing the funds, the Board of SMILE decided it was necessary to adopt an investment philosophy and to interview several professional money managers to make sure SMILE was fulfilling its fiduciary responsibilities. Although the house sale proceeds were received in July of 2007, they were not actually invested until March of 2009, which proved quite fortuitous, as the funds were only in cash at the time the markets collapsed in 2008. As a result, the funds, which are accounted for separately on the books of SMILE, have grown considerably in the years since.
As the annual threats by the city to the continued operation of the Sellwood Community Center recurred each year, those funds were there if needed. Each year, local resident feedback managed to establish the importance of this Center, and funding continued – and as well, for the other small Community Centers in the city. Now that has changed, and the SMILE Board recognizes that it is time to use those funds for the purpose for which they were intended.
The Friends of Sellwood Community Center today is Chaired by Gail Hoffnagle. (Also prominent on the committee is Julie Currin, a parent who relies on the Community Center services herself.) Gail Hoffnagle, along with her SMILE colleague Nancy Walsh, are both retired former directors of Portland's Community Centers and employees of the Parks Department. SMILE is fortunate to have two people in the organization who know exactly how to run a Community Center. And the Friends of Sellwood Community Center Committee is now hard at work developing operating plans for picking up on September 1 where the city leaves off.
It won't be and cannot be exactly the same. SMILE cannot meet the city's employment contract terms, and it is unknown (until August 31!) which employees of the closing small Community Centers will be transferred to other jobs, and which will lose their jobs with the city.
SMILE's first job is obtaining agreement from PP&R to start operating its building on September 1, and then to work on terms by which SMILE can acquire the historically-listed building. Long-term, SMILE is hopeful that the city will follow through on ideas it has pursued in the past to build and operate a new Community Center in Westmoreland Park.
But for now, the plan is to keep the Sellwood Community Center open after the end of August, and to operate at least the most essential family services that people in the area are counting on (especially with the departure of the former Meyer Memorial Boys and Girls Club).
As this is written, the city has yet to be responsive to SMILE requests for detailed condition reports of the Sellwood Community Center building, and the lists of reservations taken, in various classes, for September. As mentioned, the city is unwilling to disclose even what Community Center employees won't have a job starting September 1, and says it won't reveal that to the affected employees until August 31!
Those in the community who want to be involved in this singular effort to retain the Sellwood Community Center for the use of the neighborhoods in Inner Southeast Portland are invited to start by regularly checking the webpage at SMILE updating the progress of this effort – tinyurl.com/y432h9as
Plan on attending the meetings of the committee (announced on the webpage), and also the meetings of the Board of SMILE – including the special Board Meetings – as announced at – www.SMILErecords.org
Consider volunteering. Several dozen Inner Southeast residents already have! There is a place online to sign up to volunteer; check it out – tinyurl.com/HELPSELLWOOD
THE BEE has reported on the developing crisis for the Sellwood Community Center over the past months, and will be continuing to report on this extraordinary clocal effort to keep the Center open for the Inner Southeast community; but now you have the background, and a better idea of just what is going on.
However, only motivated residents of Inner Southeast themselves in the end can make this work. Consider being one of them!
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A couple of other things
First, believe it or not, KATU-TV-2 with only four days left before it was supposed to change its frequency to complete an already extended FCC mandate, filed at the last minute for a SECOND extension – this time, till the middle of August. So – whenever over-the-air viewers find Channel 2 has vanished from their dial, all they will have to do is "rescan for stations" to get it back. The other remaining station mandated to change frequency did so at 11:59 p.m. on June 21 – KNMT-TV-24.
Meantime, all the other TV stations in the area keep having to reduce their power considerably, while the tower work for KATU is going on, to protect the tower workers – so if you've been having any trouble getting any of the other major local stations, that problem might be solved when KATU finally gets this job done.Second – in a story by David F. Ashton some time ago, THE BEE pointed out that a weird court ruling in Oregon had effectively given car thieves a free pass to steal any car they wanted to without penalty – because the ruling said nobody could be prosecuted for the crime if they told police they had borrowed it with permission. It was hard if not impossible to prove on the spot that they did not have permission from whatever person was supposed to have granted it; so, if they were arrested, they would be released by a judge, and no prosecutor would charge them because of the near certainty that they would be acquitted under this ruling. Needless to say, all the car thieves knew about this!We are not sure why it took so long for Oregon's state legislature to pass a law to override that ruling – maybe for a while they couldn't believe such a dumb ruling could actually have been made! – but, on June 19, they finally did pass a remediating law – unanimously – and it went to the Governor for her signature. Hallelujah.
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