Facebook via Ella Austin Community Center
Ella Austin Community Center, the 100-year-old city-owned multipurpose building in the heart of Dignowity Hill, has been running without a cemented lease since May.
In the past, the city has promptly renewed the East Side nonprofit's lease every 5 years, but this year the date came and went without a council vote. Suddenly, the future of Ella Austin as a home base for low-income senior services, childhood development programming, food bank distribution, after-school STEM classes for kids, and other relied-upon resources was hazy.
Rumors that then-District 2 Councilman Alan Warrick was wanting to move the center and raze the building — opening up space for development in its rapidly-gentrifying neighborhood — ignited an fight from neighbors and community activists to renew the lease as soon as possible.
On Thursday, that fight landed in the laps of city council members who voted, unanimously, to reinstate a 5-year lease for a total of $10.
"We occupy a facility strategically located in Dignowity Hill historic district and near the communities we serve," said Ella Austin CEO Tony Hargrove before the council vote, stressing the importance of the location. "We stand side by side with the families in our community. And we thank you."
In the original lease from the city, the nonprofit agreed to pay for maintenance and general repairs in exchange for a $1 a year, 5-year lease. But by 2016, the amount of maintenance needed on the ancient building surpassed the nonprofit's slim budget. Broken windows went unrepaired, plumbing issues went unresolved, and the HVAC system was on the fritz. Ella Austin was in dire need of upkeep — about $11 million worth, according to Hargrove.
So, Hargrove requested that $11 million for Ella Austin be included in the city’s 2017 municipal bond. Even after shrinking that request to $5.6 million, the city ultimately excluded any Ella Austin funding from the bond. And by May, the city had failed to renew the nonprofit's lease.
Within a month, community members were meeting to strategize a solution, and those meetings led to city council calls, emails, and testimony. Kids hand-delivered letters to the council explaining why they loved Ella Austin. Meanwhile, board members made sure its newest council representative, Cruz Shaw, was on their team. It seemed to work.
“Without the community’s involvement in expressing how important Ella is to our community at the various forums and public meetings held over the past few months, today would not be possible," said Councilman Shaw in a press statement.
In its renewed lease, brought to the council's attention by Shaw, the city agreed to repair the major problems in the building, giving staff a chance to get ahead in preventative maintenance costs.
"We have so much potential to thrive in this growing area," said Ella Austin board member Victor Zuniga. "Now we have a chance to actually stay afloat."
Although the renewal is a relief for those scrambling to simply keep Ella Austin's doors open, it remains a short-term fix.
In June, the Ella Austin board originally asked the city for a 10-year lease, since donors are wary to hand over substantial grant funding to organizations with a short lease. One of those donors is the Spurs' Silver & Black Give Back program, an organization that gave Ella Austin $15,000 in 2014
. It won't grant funding to any nonprofit with less than a 10-year lease.
"It's unfortunate. We are already truly strapped, financially, and that funding could allow us to connect the dots and set longer-term goals," said Beverly Watts Davis, chair of the Ella Austin board. She told the Current
the board will be working hard to appeal to donors that may be hesitant to back such a short-term program. But first, they'll celebrate.
"On the East Side, when we get a success, we go home and sit down, and then take on another challenge," said Watts Davis, who's planning a Ella Austin party for the community. "Not this time."