A Private Venture Seeks Public Parks Bond Money 

The Alameda Boys and Girls Club seeks public funding for its new center, to the consternation of people who say that's not what a 2008 parks bond was for.

If things had gone according to plan, George Phillips would be cutting the ribbon on the Alameda Boys and Girls Club's new 25,000-square-foot home. Instead, he is waiting with bated breath for a legal opinion that could finally push that dream forward — at the expense, some say, of parks and open space in Alameda and, potentially, across the East Bay.

Faced with a deadline that could put the club's new home further out of reach — and an insurmountably bad economy that has been merciless with nonprofits such as his — Phillips began looking for public funding sources to cure a $2 million shortfall in the club's fundraising. And he believes he has found the right one in Measure WW, the $500 million regional parks and open space bond approved by more than 70 percent of East Bay voters in November 2008.

"There is a pressing need for new services," Phillips said. "We need to be out there." And he thinks the recreational programs the club offers are in line with the purpose of the bond.

But his request for $2 million of Alameda's $3.4 million share of the parks bond has sparked outrage among park and open-space advocates, who say the money is meant to be used for desperately needed upkeep of the city's existing parks and to create new ones, including two that have long sat on city wish lists.

"Everyone knew this bond money was going to establish new parks, to save wild rivers," said Jean Sweeney, a local open-space advocate. "I think the voters would feel very deceived. I personally would campaign against any further bond measures if they start giving (the money) to private organizations that don't have public access."

Alameda's City Council is waiting to make a decision until they get word from bond counsel for the East Bay Regional Park District, which distributes the bond money, on whether Phillips' request is a permissible use of the funds. Interim City Manager Ann Marie Gallant said at an October 6 meeting that the decision could take up to 30 days. It was not yet available when a reporter asked about it this week.

If the request is approved, it will mark the first time the money was given to a private entity operating on property not owned by a municipality. (The Oakland Zoo, which was specifically listed on the ballot as a beneficiary of the bond funds, is city property that is being run by a nonprofit.)

City staff have since come up with a plan that would required the club to pay back $1 million of the $2 million they are requesting, with the money to be used to finance park and open-space projects. They are also drawing up a city use agreement for the facility.

Phillips' club has been homeless for nearly five years, since he sold its Lincoln Avenue building and decided to head west (the club has been operating programs on a smaller scale in one of Alameda's public housing projects and at a nearby middle school). Phillips said he didn't think it made sense to pay $2 million to retrofit the building without creating a single new program for the youths he serves. And the island's demographics have shifted in recent years, pushing the lower-income, at-risk youth the Boys and Girls club has traditionally served more predominantly into its West End.

The state-of-the-art facility, which Phillips expects will serve 3,400 youths, would include a gymnasium, teen center and game room, a computer lab, learning center, arts and crafts space, and a music and dance area. It will also offer free medical and dental services and additional services from other local nonprofits.

With a 99-year, $1-a-year lease on a 1.5-acre parcel of school district property and $6 million in hand, Phillips broke ground on his new facility in January. At the time, he expressed confidence that he could raise the additional $2 million he'd need to get it built. But fundraising slowed to a crawl.

Faced with the pending expiration of some of his grants, Phillips began looking elsewhere for money. He said the idea to use the city's Measure WW funds came up during a brainstorming session with City Councilwoman Lena Tam. (However, Tam said the club came to her with the idea.) Phillips, who once sat on an East Bay Regional Park District advisory committee, got an e-mail from its grants manager, Jeff Rasmussen, indicating that it could. Tam put it on the council's agenda.

Tam said she thinks leveraging the city's money into the Boys and Girls Club is a good investment that could provide services for the entire city — services she says its cash-starved Recreation and Parks Department is struggling to provide. And Tam said giving the money to the club for its West End facility will help correct an inequity in the way regional park bond money was distributed in the past. The vast majority of the city's allotment from Measure AA — a prior parks bond — was spent in the city's more-affluent East End, she said.

But park and open-space advocates said the city has its own needs, and that the money can and should be used to prop up the city's own sagging parks and to create new ones along the estuary and the former Belt Line property, which the city had just won the right to buy for under $1 million, thanks largely to Sweeney's efforts.

The Recreation and Park Commission's original list, which had been okayed by the city council, included renovations to recreation buildings at three parks and resurfacing of a fourth park's basketball and tennis courts. The commission voted unanimously to oppose the club's funding request.

"We feel the parks and playgrounds and recreation programs should benefit from that money," commission chairwoman Terri Bertero Ogden said. "We're going to have to start closing down our parks if we don't start maintaining them."

Phillips said the club won't be able to move forward on its new building — which its leaders feel will be the most important building in town — without the city's help. But even if the park district's bond counsel gives their blessing, it's not yet clear how the council will vote.

"Do we want to stretch the ballot measure?" asked Councilman Frank Matarrese during a public hearing on the request. "Should we? If something on the list is taken off, that project is not going to get done. Does the Littlejohn recreation center not get built? We may not like it, but it's going to be a discussion of this or this, a city asset or an asset that belongs to somebody else. As venerated as the Boys and Girls Club is, was that the intent of the use of that money?"

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