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Galesburg community center task force considers sites; letter outlines concerns

The Knox County YMCA at 1324 W. Carl Sandburg Drive in Galesburg.
Jane Carlson
Tri States Public Radio
The Knox County YMCA at 1324 W. Carl Sandburg Drive in Galesburg.

Some members of the task force appointed to take up the issue of a community center in Galesburg are leaning strongly toward the existing public library building for the community center site.

The library will be moving to its new building next year.

Task force member Connie Dennis said the downtown location of the current library is ideal, while Anthony Law said the site is centrally located but is technically on the city’s south side.

“It’s very doable in my humble opinion,” Law said.

The task force met Tuesday at Carl Sandburg College for the sixth of eight planned meetings before they make a recommendation to the city council on a community center.

They discussed core amenities and potential locations.

And two task force members -- Adam Sampson and Demarkius Medley – floated a potential business plan at Tuesday’s meeting that has the Knox County YMCA in partnership with the city on the community center initiative.

Sampson is the CEO of the Knox County YMCA. He was appointed to the task force by Ward Seven Council Member Steve Cheesman, who suggested forming the task force.

Sampson said he believes a community center is less about bricks and mortar and more about programming, referencing the now-defunct Boys and Girls Club of Knox County.

“The Boys and Girls Club was programming. Everything we’re talking about is about moving the needle with kids, right? That’s really what we’re talking about or providing seniors with something,” Sampson said. “And how are we going to execute that is we have to have the talent.”

The proposed business plan suggests divvying up the funds for the community center – under the current $2.5 million funding cap -- in five ways.

That includes $500,000 for existing senior centers to enhance programming and $200,000 for entities already providing programming for children.

The recommendations from Sampson and Medley also include $900,000 to build a rentable gathering space with a kitchen at H.T. Custer Park on the city’s south side and setting aside up to $200,000 for marketing and future transportation needs.

Lastly, they suggest giving $800,000 to the YMCA to help build an indoor playground and child area, then renovating existing space into a teen center, with the city funding a youth development director who would work at the YMCA overseeing the teen center and programming.

Sampson said this proposal meets the parameters the task force was given, including not duplicating services, and it could be adjusted to substitute other locations, such as the library site.

Medley was appointed by Ward Four Council Member Dwight White after someone else stepped down. He said he came in critical of the task force, but had a change of heart and believes compromise is the only way to move the project forward.

“I think this is something the council will approve. I think we can get the funds we need. Because with an organization like the YMCA that’s something the council can trust that this money is going to be spent right,” Medley said.

Others expressed concern about privatizing the community center effort and said requiring a YMCA membership for a teen center would be a barrier to participation even with scholarships available.

Attendance, location, and streaming
Fifteen people were initially appointed to the task force. That includes two people per city council member and one from Mayor Peter Schwartzman.

None of the meetings, however, have had 15 task force members in attendance. Three people resigned and others have missed multiple meetings.

Attendance and participation are among concerns about the task force articulated in a letter signed by 20 members of the community and sent to Cheesman, Schwartzman, and Interim City Manager John Schlaf. The letter was also sent to local media.

“Several members attend but do not contribute anything--both in that they don't speak or they don't seem to have done any research,” reads the letter. “Are these members going to have a say/vote on the final proposal that the task force submits to the city council? We hope not. They should not.”

Other concerns expressed in the letter include a perceived conflict of interest regarding the YMCA, questions over the $2.5 million funding cap, and the location and accessibility of the meetings themselves.

Jaclyn Smith-Esters – a task force member and former city council member who has long supported community center efforts – told TSPR she’s concerned the meetings aren’t being recorded, streamed, or televised by the city, despite multiple requests from members of the public to do so.

“To me that’s a big one, because according to the Open Meetings Act, it’s not only supposed to have minutes but you’re also supposed to have a recording of it or audio. So that people who are unable to come are able to listen to it. What you’re doing is you're eliminating people that don’t have cars,” said Smith-Esters, who was appointed to the task force by Ward Six Council Member Sarah Davis.

Smith-Esters has recorded the last two meetings herself and posted them online.

The community center task force does fall under the Open Meetings Act, and all task force members were required to complete OMA training.

City Clerk Kelli Bennewitz told TSPR the task force is described within the context of OMA as an “ad hoc group.”

“The city council approved the members of the community center task force in July and named it at that time. It could be thought of as a group similar to our commissions and it was created for a specific duration for a specific purpose,” Bennewitz said.

The city has more than a dozen volunteer boards, committees, and commissions. Bennewitz said the only meetings the city streams or televises are the city council and the planning and zoning commission.

"Consistent with other city boards and commissions, there are ample opportunities for public involvement and transparency,” Bennewitz said of the task force. “Meetings are open to the public, as well as the agendas and minutes available on the city’s website.”

So far the task force has met at city hall, the public library, and at Sandburg.

“It was originally thought it could be beneficial for task force members to meet at neutral locations and visit different facilities, as they would likely want to take current amenities into consideration,” Bennewitz said. “However, only some locations are able to easily accommodate the volunteer task force of 15, plus members of the public, so it is likely that future meetings will continue to be held at Carl Sandburg College or Galesburg city hall.

With two meetings left, task force chair Tony Franklin encouraged members to “break free of the divisiveness that has plagued the city” since the days when Lake Storey was segregated.

“We have to get way beyond that,” he said.

And Smith-Esters said she believes the task force will come together to make a recommendation to the council.

“We’re going to get there and I think it’s going to come down to voting on, okay, you might say no to this idea but the majority is going with it so we’re going to have to go with it to get to the next point,” she said. “We’ll be done but it’s going to be a very democratic way to get there.”

Tri States Public Radio produced this story.  TSPR relies on financial support from our readers and listeners in order to provide coverage of the issues that matter to west central Illinois, southeast Iowa, and northeast Missouri. As someone who values the content created by TSPR's news department please consider making a financial contribution.

Jane Carlson is TSPR's regional reporter.