Commons loses youth partnership

Three years after selling the state on the idea of a community center that combined South Whidbey’s youth and senior citizen centers, the South Whidbey Commons found itself without a single agency partner as of late last week.

On Thursday, the South Whidbey Youth Connection — a non-profit that operates a teen after-school drop-in center in Langley — notified members of the Commons board of directors that it will not move its youth center or administrative offices to the planned multigenerational center at Bayview. This news comes almost a year and a half after Senior Services of Island County announced that it was also breaking ties with the Commons. Both the Youth Connection and Senior Services partnered with the Commons as early as 2000 and drew up plans to move their operations to the planned Bayview Road facility. Senior Services officials stated at the time of the agency’s exit from the project that it did not consider the Commons to be viable.

With the Youth Connection withdrawal, the Commons has no permanent tenants for a center it had planned to build this year. The Commons is still raising the $1.95 million needed to start construction.

Holly Morgan, Youth Connection’s director, said Thursday her organization’s pullout is a practical matter. The Youth Connection drop-in center recently expanded its space in the basement of the Langley United Methodist Church after Youth Connection moved its offices out of that space. With statistics showing a drop in South Whidbey’s school-age population over the next few years, Morgan said her organization does not need the 7,600 square feet planned for the first phase of construction of the Commons center.

“We don’t believe we’re going to have a bursting at the seams situation,” she said.

Additionally, Youth Connection recently conducted a survey of about 35 youth center users that indicated more than half of them would not utilize the drop-in center if it moved to Bayview. Morgan said a majority of the teens you use the center are Langley Middle School students, who go to school only a short walk away from the center. If getting to the center meant getting on a bus to Bayview, she said, a large portion of the approximately 300 children using it currently would likely never show up.

Even with the pullout, Commons officials said this week the viability of the project is still intact. Sue Haworth, the chair of the Commons’ board of directors, said the organization will continue fundraising to meet its $1.95 million goal. The Washington state office of Community, Trade and Economic Development has granted $750,000 toward building the Commons center, and has budgeted another $200,000 grant for construction. However, those funds are contingent upon the Commons’ ability to raise the remainder of the funds by June. According to Commons fundraising literature, the organization still needs to raise $394,860.

Kaaren Roe, a grant manager with CTED who directly supervises the Commons grants, was not available to comment this week on the effect of the Youth Connection pullout.

Sue Haworth said Monday that the Commons executive committee has discussed the Youth Connection’s announcement and has no plans to halt the fundraising. She said the development is positive in that it leaves the Commons without obligations to full-time, agency renters at its center.

It also leaves the Commons without much of its predicted income stream. Youth Connection was to have paid $500 a month to rent space in the building. The South Whidbey Senior Center, had it relocated to the Commons, was expected to bring several hundred thousand dollars to the fundraising campaign, money that would have been raised by selling the senior center’s current property on Highway 525 at Bayview.

Where the Commons will get its rental income now is a question without a firm answer. Haworth and fellow Commons board member Kathy McLaughlin said they have contacted Skagit Valley College to guage the college’s interests in bringing some of its programs to the community center. The also hope to get other community groups interested in renting space for their programs.

Ultimately, they said, the Commons mission is still to bring youth and older adults together under one roof. Haworth said the community center, once built, could draw a large number of teens and senior citizens who do not use the Youth Connection drop-in center or the senior center.

“There are a lot more people to be served,” Haworth said.

The Commons got its start with a planning grant from CTED in 1998. The organization has already purchased acreage at Bayview on which to build its community center. No construction work has yet begun.

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