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Community Center officials seek collaboration with Connellsville

| Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Connellsville City Council remains committed to keeping the Connellsville Community Center a vital part of the community.

As of Tuesday afternoon, no resolutions regarding control of the center had appeared on the agenda for tonight's 7 p.m. council meeting at city hall.

An independent board runs the center, but a great deal of Connellsville's Community Development Block Grant money has been used to improve the city-owned structure.

CDBG money was used to install an elevator, add heat to the third floor and, most recently, heat to the first and second floors. That project is contractually due to be complete at the end of this month.

Center board members have brought these and other capital projects to the city's attention through the years.

At September's council meeting, Mayor Charles Matthews commented on Connellsville Area Community Ministries moving from the building. He said the city wanted tenants to stay in the building and the board to be more active. He said if things didn't change, the city would take over operation of the facility.

Matthews and Councilman Gregory Ritch, director of parks and public property, have attended center board meetings and asked the board to develop a plan for marketing the facility as a community resource.

"I'm committed to keeping it open. It represents a huge investment by the city," Matthews said.

Matthews wants a marketing plan in place and an attractive, introductory lease rate for new tenants.

"We need the center to generate money. We go up there and commit taxpayer money to the tune of a couple hundred thousand dollars. We don't want it to become another Aaron's building. The city can't afford the utilities. It needs tenants."

Matthews said he didn't think council would take any type of action this month.

"That board is still in operational control of the building," Ritch said.

Community Center Board Treasurer Sue Wagner plans to address council tonight. She'll discuss the center's history and community impact.

That's fine with council.

"If somebody comes from the board, we will listen," Ritch said.

Community Center Board President is Les Strader.

"It sounds like the city is possibly going to extinguish the community center. There are a lot of board members who have put their heart and soul into keeping the center open," Strader said.

Wagner said the board has been in existence for 40 years. The community center formerly served as the Connellsville High School. It was built in 1916.

"Their (the board's) volunteer efforts to repair, clean, fundraise and promote created a community center whose mission became to develop and conduct community activities in cooperation with government and social service agencies which will be of benefit to all residents of the area, but especially to those residents who through extenuating circumstances, need help to advance in their educational, social, moral, health recreational or self-esteem status," Wagner said she will say in her prepared statement tonight.

Connellsville Area Community Ministries, a major tenant, left the center when its lease expired at the end of 2011. Strader said heat was an issue.

"They moved out to move to a larger facility, so did the Fayette County Community Action Agency and Premier Dance Studio," said Wagner. "Agencies have also been leaving because funding is cut. It all happened at the same time."

The office manager has been making a list of those expressing interest and what their needs are so the center can match needs to available rooms. A church and an animal spay and neuter facility are among those expressing interest.

The center is also a Community Service Site, so "we are known in the community by those who refer for services," Wagner said. The three paid staff members get volunteer workers through being a service site. Some volunteers are court-appointed, while others receive vital job training experience.

Marketing efforts have begun. Wagner has been "sending information out into various work force and training organizations like CareerLink, the Private Industry Council and the Work Force Investment Board. We have worked at making sure our staff are educated about what we have. We're also hoping to put together a volunteer network to help with marketing, to get the word out that space is available."

Current long-term lease tenants include the Salvation Army, Twin Trees, HOBo Model Railroad Club, By Faith Ministries, Little Buddies Day Care, YMCA Summer Camp and many groups that use the gym both year-round and seasonally. The Porter Theater hosts plays and concerts.

Wagner said the board seeks money for improvements in addition to rent paid by tenants. "We're aggressive in grants and fundraising. I'm not sure where the breakdown happened."

"We're seeking some collaboration," Strader said. "We had none with the prior administration. The new administration has expressed some concerns it would be continued."

"The reality is that the board has demonstrated a willingness to work with its tenants and local government in a unified and committed manner for the purpose of keeping our center open and active," Wagner said. "But it has also worked to be responsible and fair just as it would ask any interested tenant to be responsible and fair."

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