MANSFIELD -- Deanna West-Torrence told Mansfield City Council on Wednesday night she doesn't fear trying to raise the funds for a new $8 million north end community center.
"I think this is really just a unique opportunity for us. I'm not scared by the funding. I certainly understand the questions from the public and we are working to answer those things and we will continue to," said West-Torrence, founder and CEO of the North End Community Improvement Collaborative.
"We've never done a single project by ourselves and all of our work is guided by the plan (north end) residents came up with. That's my job here ... working their plan," said West-Torrence, a former City Council member who founded NECIC in 2006.
After listening to her presentation, council did approve $1.5 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds for the project, part of an overall $9 million spending package presented by Mayor Tim Theaker.
Richland County commissioners have indicated they will contribute up to $2 million from their ARPA funds toward the project, presenting an opportunity West-Torrence said could not be missed.
The center will be at 486 Springmill St., formerly the Imani Activity and Events Center, which NECIC purchased in the summer of 2021.
"I do think that it will not be as difficult to raise the (remainder of the) money as we think it is. There's a lot of funding for projects like this that we'll be able to get, but those first-dollar commitments help tremendously, just in even getting them to talk to you for a project of this scope," West-Torrence said.
There are no general fund dollars from the city going toward the project.
"In terms of putting the funding together, in addition to the (city and county) ARPA funds, which we appreciate, we feel like that will help us leverage a lot of the (other) project money.
"When people see first dollars go in, we think it's a lot easier if your own community is behind that," she said.
Under ARPA guidelines, funds must be allocated by the end of 2024 and funded projects must be complete by the end of 2026. It's likely remaining funds will have to be raised by the end of 2023 in order for the city and county to keep their commitments.
"In an effort to keep things moving along, we've already invested about $180,000 in this project, in terms of having an architect (do preliminary designs)," she said. "We do not have the final design yet."
When the plan was announced during the NECIC's annual meeting March 30, plans included an indoor swimming pool. West-Torrence pointed out the nearby Friendly House has a pool and the organization has decided not to include one in the new community center.
"We held several community meetings and (Matthew Stanfield of FiELD 9 Architecture) has talked to a lot of our partners and so forth to make sure that the things that we are planning in that building are things that are aligned with what the community is looking for," West-Torrence said.
"We've made a decision to take (a pool) off the table, which will also help us reduce some operating costs," she said.
West-Torrence said NECIC and the Friendly House serve different purposes in the community.
"They operate camps, a daycare, after-school programs and all that. We have minority business, we grow food, we put people to work, we do workforce and career development. So we are a totally different type of organization," she said.
"However, amenities such as a gym ... those things we don't have enough of. Ocie Hill and Friendly House (gyms) stayed packed. The Friendly House is at max capacity and I don't think that we should expect the Friendly House to do it all by themselves.
"I think the Friendly House has done a phenomenal job, but they can't do it all by themselves. They focus primarily on, kids up to age 12, and we have focused on the teens. So it's not a duplication of services in any way at all," West-Torrence said.
She said the ARPA funds would be used only for construction, not for operations.
"The construction is expensive and we're gonna pay more on the front end to (save) a lot from the back end. The facility is designed to be very, very, very energy efficient in terms of reducing operational cost by about 75 percent.
"There are rooftop gardens. There are solar panels, there's rain water reclamation. Those elements will be built into the building," she said.
"We already are pretty much known for gardens and farms and things like that. So we thought that those would be really nice amenities," she said.
The facility will fill a void left by the closure of various neighborhood schools and the Ocie Hill Neighborhood Center, according to West-Torrence.
"This is an opportunity for us to put some of those services back into the neighborhood in a beautiful facility that I think people deserve," she said.
"This center will be for everyone. We have never said if you don't live in the north end, you can't come. Most of our programs are open to everyone, unless they are restricted by some some sort of funding.
"So although it would be located in the north end, just like Kingwood Center, just like Little Buckeye, and all that ... it is for the community.
"The placement of the building is for the north end ... to interrupt some of that violence ... to make up for there not being any more schools in the neighborhood. This is an area where seven schools were closed," West-Torrence said.
"Over time, it's just gotten really, really bad. So this is just an opportunity to do something. The city and the county together got close to $44 million (in ARPA funds). So it makes sense to make a small investment there.
"I think that the return on that is economic development. If you look at where the Mansfield Rising area ends, just carry some of that development further north, right into the heart of where we're talking about," she said.
Every member of City Council spoke in favor of the project during a Finance Committee meeting, including Aurelio Diaz, who represents the 5th Ward.
"I think the reality is we should have had something like this a long time ago and that target age of 13 to 18, those are the kids we need to be rescuing.
"My fear is for our community and for our safety forces (increased crime) is what we're seeing and once the weather breaks, we are gonna see more crime, we're gonna see more violence. Most of those gunshot incidents last year were seventh and eighth graders," Diaz said.
He said those who may not support the project don't realize how many people the community center will benefit, not just those on the north end.
"So this is going to benefit more than just our area. And the fact that we're getting so much out for support from outside of the north end says a lot," Diaz said.
At-large council representative Stephanie Zader said the effort showed West-Torrence's passion for the north end.
"It shows your entire organization's passion for this, that you have been so thorough in planning this and reaching out to people and getting feedback. There's no question in my mind that you'll be successful at this.
"Thank you for spearheading because this is something that our community has talked about for a long time, a community center where we can gather together and live life together and have fun together," Zader said.