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A public meeting held Tuesday to dispel rumors about the future of the Ella Austin Community Center turned into a clarion call to help preserve the Eastside center’s services and the building in which they are housed.
More than 75 people attended the meeting at the center, many of whom were under the impression that the center faces imminent closure or relocation.
A Facebook group called Save Ella Austin posted an event invite about the meeting, saying the center’s future was “being threatened by for-profit developers gentrifying the East Side and the lack of financial support from the 2017 bonds package budgeted by the City of San Antonio.”
Center officials sought to clarify some matters early in the gathering.
The nonprofit has spent decades leasing the former Ralph Waldo Emerson Middle School on North Pine Street from the City. The center’s history of serving residents from across San Antonio dates back to the late 1890s when its namesake, community supporter Ella Austin, opened an orphanage on Burnet Street.
Anthony Hargrove, the center’s CEO, noted that the structure housing the Ella Austin center is a public facility, funded by taxpayers.
“We’re stewards of this building, but this building belongs to this community,” Hargrove said.
The center’s five-year lease expired on May 31. It had been leasing the property from the City for $1 a year.
However, staff with the City’s Human Services Department recently proposed only a one-year lease, according to Hargrove.
Center officials are in the process of negotiating a new lease with the City, and are currently renting the space on a monthly basis.
Hargrove and Beverly Watts Davis, president of the center’s board of directors, said that in recent years, the City has reduced the number of years it leases properties to nonprofits.
“A one-year lease isn’t long enough for us to even move out,” Davis said.
The center has a long history of providing a range of services to young families, youth, senior citizens, and low-income residents, she added. Offerings include an Early Head Start program, utilities assistance, senior nutrition, and free income tax preparation for eligible residents.
“Our services go from the cradle to the grave,” she said.
Center officials acknowledge that the building is in need of repairs, but contend that it is nowhere near being uninhabitable or non-functional.
“We’ve got a building that’s been used over and over, but look at the building and see not just what was, but what can be,” Davis said.
“Ella Austin isn’t closing,” Hargrove said. “It’s important to say that because there are rumors out there and we need to do our best to control them.”
Center representatives lobbied for $11 million in funding in the City’s recent voter-approved $850 million bond. Davis and center advocates say outgoing City Councilman Alan Warrick (D2) asked them to pare down the request to a more practical $5 million.
The proposal, like many others citywide, did not make it far in the citizen committee meetings that helped develop the bond.
Davis implored the public to view the structure as something still suitable and vital to the Ella Austin Center and its clients: “The way they built structures back then – this building is strong. It has good bones.”
Hargrove said if the center could raise $7 million for improvements, “it’d look stellar.”
Davis and several audience members pointed out proposed and current infill developments taking shape in inner city neighborhoods such as Dignowity Hill. She asked the public not to be deterred by issues related to gentrification.
“This building should not be torn down or demolished or whatever for development. This building should not be torn down or demolished or whatever for a commercial property,” she said.
“This building should not be torn down or demolished or whatever because we’re in a poor area. This building has met its purpose, and will continue to meet its purpose.”
Incoming Councilman William “Cruz” Shaw (D2) did not comment on specific rumors surrounding the center or speculation about why funding failed to become part of the bond.
Shaw repeatedly stated his support for the Ella Austin center and for saving the building.
Having not yet been briefed on lease negotiations by City staff, Shaw said he has not heard rumors about closure. He pledged to fight for “for the longest lease possible,” adding that a three-year lease with an option for two one-year extensions would be a good start.
“I’m not letting anything happen to Ella Austin. We need to protect not only the center, but the services it provides,” Shaw said.
The incoming councilman asked audience members to come to City Hall and voice their support for the center, as would he.
“Once we have all of the options, you’ll know what all those options are,” he added, promising transparency throughout the process.
A petition quickly circulated the center’s auditorium.
Kimberly Bush said the Ella Austin center was the first point of contact and aid for her family upon moving to the community. She hopes the center remains in its location to effectively serve the Eastside.
“People need community services in their community,” she added.
Leon Thomas said as a new Council member, Shaw needs community support in his effort to preserve the center. “It’s our job is to back up this Council person,” he said. “We must stand up and fight to be recognized for who we are and who we should be.”
Government Hill Alliance President Rose Hill agreed to a unified front: “We need to have the Councilman’s back.”
Given the size of the area’s Spanish-speaking population, Martha Torres said, efforts to support the center must be bilingual.
“Without the Spanish-speaking community, people who just became U.S. citizens … You need their input because they live here, too,” she added.
Liz Franklin and Betty Green, a former center employee, both urged the center’s representatives to be more aggressive in raising funds, especially from local philanthropists and notable business leaders.
Others in the crowd said the center’s boosters should raise funds to leverage a building improvement project with help from the City.
“It really hurts to think we’re on the verge of losing [the center],” Green added.
Selena Santibanez said the services at Ella Austin helped her as a youth and inspired her to become the entrepreneur she is today.
“All of this has had a long-term impact,” she added.
Santibanez also urged more people to join in the effort to both preserve Ella Austin, and to address gentrification citywide.
Nettie Hinton agreed: “The elephant in the room is gentrification.”
Deborah Omowale, board chairwoman with the Alamo City Black Chamber of Commerce, shared Santibanez’s sentiment.
“As long as [displacement] is seen as a District 2 problem, it’ll be treated as a District 2 problem,” she said. “This problem is happening citywide. We need to have a conversation with our Council members and hold them accountable.”