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Rising construction costs may change Commons project

Increased construction cost could mean a change in plans for The Commons, a planned community center for all ages in Bayview. Even so, supporters say the project will be built on time and no corners will be cut.

The Commons board reached its initial financial goal of raising $2 million for the project. However, the board said, construction costs have increased dramatically over the past four years and that has forced the group to rethink its plans for the community center.

“Constructing the Commons building as originally designed and allowing for two years of operating costs would require raising an additional $1.2 million,” said Sue Haworth, Commons chairwoman.

Faced with this shortfall, the Commons board commissioned the Alford Group, fundraising consultants, to identify opportunities and challenges for moving forward with the project.

The Alford “Mid-Campaign Study” concluded that it was not realistic to raise the additional funds in a timely manner, she said.

Instead, the board will now explore options to downscale the project slightly to save money, Haworth said.

Further delays would result in the loss of many of the already secured grants. The Commons has raised nearly $1.5 million in grants alone, including money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Murdoch Foundation, and the Paul G. Allen Foundation.

With those grants in hand, the Commons board decided to rethink the original architectural design and investigate building a smaller facility using as soon as possible with existing funds.

The planned 8,000-square-foot building will now be closer to 6,000-7,000 square feet, and the community “living room” within the building will shrink from 3,000 square feet to 2,000, which is still about the size of Bayview Hall, Haworth explained.

“No corners will be cut. The original design was very pricey,” she said. “A volunteer architect helps us to reduce costs and create a practical construction design.”

The Commons board is also reviewing other recommendations from the Mid-Campaign Study that dealt with programs, uses of space, working with community partners and financial sustainability.

An operating budget for one year is set aside as well, Haworth said.

A revised business plan is under development to assure that the redesigned facility will work in the long run.

“We think the revised business plan is sustainable,” she said. “We basically firmed up a bunch of numbers.”

Despite the setback, the project is still on time. The board expects to have the redesigned building plans back by the end of summer and start construction as soon as possible, with an occupation date set for sometime in 2007. The Commons has site approval from the county, but has not yet gotten a building permit.

Once the Commons is built, local community organizations will move in and bring many of their programs with them. Among the organizations are the Community Engagement Center, the Family Resource Center and the Co-op preschool. New activities and programs will also be introduced.

Megan Roosen-Runge, a board member who has been a part of the project since she was only 12 in 1998, is excited to see the project take shape.

Roosen-Runge said the South Whidbey Commons will be available to the entire community and will partner with organizations that provide a wide range of programs and services for children, youth, families and seniors.

The collaborative approach will build community, embrace diversity and foster relationships among the people of South Whidbey. Spontaneous activity, anchor tenants and community program rentals will fill the Commons with people-to-people interaction. It will also support activities that require large meeting and event spaces, she said.

Roosen-Runge hopes the community center will become a melting pot for generations.

“It’s all about engaging the community,” she said.

The best part is that people won’t have to spend a lot of money to get together.

“How many places are there where you can go without spending money?” Haworth asked.

The heart of the Commons will be the community living room. Other rooms will include a youth/adult multi-purpose room, a family and child center, and a small café.

The building site has the capability to expand the facility to 18,900 square feet as the community and its needs grow.

The youth/adult multi-purpose room and other shared spaces will be ideal for programs attractive to seniors, supporters say.

Common Ground, the program committee of the South Whidbey Commons, already hosts multi-generational events and workshops and will continue to do so. To meet the needs of the teenagers, the facility will provide a venue for after-school gatherings, as well as evening and special weekend musical events and programs.

Kathy McLaughlin, former South Whidbey Commons board member and executive director of Good Cheer, said the project will help the community come together.

“I have dedicated my life for the last eight years in trying to get the Commons built. Because of my personal story, I have seen and lived with what happens when a child feels isolated or a family lives with the problems of substance abuse and addiction. I believe everyone has the right to feel a sense of belonging,” she said. “I believe the Commons will increase opportunities for that to happen.”

South Whidbey’s population has grown more than 35 percent since 1990 and is continuing to grow at almost 1 percent per year.

Meeting the needs of the different age groups on South Whidbey is not simple, McLaughlin said.

South Whidbey has no place where people of all ages are welcome at all times to come together in small or large groups for social, recreational, or educational pursuits.

“We have space, such as schools and churches for one-time gatherings, but no one place for programs for the different generations of our families,” she said.

“What better gift could we give to our youth than something that will help protect them and help to keep them safe?” McLaughlin asked.

Other community members also see the value of the project.

Patty Sievers of Freeland said the Commons is even more important today than six years ago when the idea for the project was born.

“With the change in Youth Connections and their canceling of senior high programs, it is more important now than ever that we shine a spotlight on what our youth need here on South Whidbey,” she said.

Sievers became involved with youth issues when she moved to the island permanently.

“In this community that had so many middle class and upper middle class families, we had a real disparity within the community – the haves and the have-nots,” she said. “Many of our youth were on the short end of that stick.”

“The biggest problem (husband) Bill and I saw was that there was no safe place for our young people to gather outside of school. We then decided we needed to do something about that for our daughters, so we put in an outdoor multipurpose sport court that had a light for after dark,” Sievers said.

For the next seven years the Sievers invited their daughter’s friends and anyone who wanted to come to hang out. Fridays and Saturday nights were often busy, and from time to time young people lived with the family for a couple days or a couple of months because they didn’t have a safe place to go, Sievers recalled.

“Six years ago I had an ‘Aha’ moment when I attended a three-day community conference that looked at the need to serve our growing population of youth and families – finally this community was going to build something for our youth,” she said.

“We have been hard at work on this Commons project ever since, and I feel passionate about its success. For me it holds the promise of providing that gathering space filled with programs and events that I was fervently looking and hoping for 13 years ago,” she said.

Sievers said the Commons project is a positive way to help young people and the community as a whole.

“I refuse to believe that the new juvenile detention facility is all we are willing to build for our youth,” she said.

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