When you ask City Council for $25,000, it helps to have a little political savvy.
Dr. Gene Rainey — former chair of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners and a former City Council member — politely acknowledged that current Council members are facing a tight budget year. He joked, “I know the city manager had a hernia when he saw this [request].” Rainey suggested that Council make a commitment to award $25,000 in seed money for a first-of-its-kind teen center in Asheville — but spread out the donation over a two-year period.
Continuing his polite-but-political tack, Rainey also reminded Mayor Leni Sitnick, “We made a promise.” He read out loud her remarks (made in 1994, during her first term on Council) about the urgent need for a teen center. And he read his own 1991 comments on the issue.
Rainey also noted that, during a 1997 summit, some city youth had called for such a center.
“We’ve both been here before, and nothing happened,” he said. Citing staggering statistics about increased teen violence, suicides, dropouts and abuse, he pleaded, “Time is running out.”
The teen center proposed by Rainey is a project of Our Next Generation, Inc. (Rainey is president of the board). The center would provide teens with a “cool place to hang out,” he explained: It would offer educational services, such as tutoring; hands-on job training (teens would, for example, run their own soda shop and entertainment venue); nonsport recreational activities; daycare for teen parents; and fellowship. But most importantly (in terms of preventing teen crime and pregnancies), the center would provide these services during those after-school hours in which the majority of teen crimes and pregnancies occur: 3-6 p.m., Rainey said.
The city’s $25,000 would match a Buncombe County grant, promised recently by commissioners, and would help fund ONG’s first teen center (Rainey said the organization proposes to create nearly 20 in the next dozen years). “We need a smaller model to try some things out,” he explained, emphasizing that this concept hasn’t been tried anywhere else in the country (similar centers do exist, but they usually target a specific group of teens — typically, youthful offenders).
The Asheville center would be secular in nature and open to a diverse range of teens, including developmentally disabled youth, continued. Rainey. “No teen group will be excluded by ONG,” he promised.
Council members said they support the concept; they questioned Rainey on adult-staffing issues and on how the centers would support themselves (teens would pay a $10 annual membership, daycare fees would be charged, and on-site, teen-run businesses would also generate revenue, in addition to ongoing support from grants, ONG projects).
“We need to do something [for teens],” proclaimed Mayor Sitnick. “It would be nice for Asheville to create the model for this, rather than following in someone else’s footsteps.”
Council members agreed to adopt, in formal session, a resolution supporting the concept of the center; that level of formalized support will enable ONG to start securing grants and other financial support, according to Rainey. Council members also gave an unofficial thumbs-up to his proposal to split the city’s contribution over a two-year period.
On June 15, Asheville City Council members agreed to give VISION organizers another year of free space at 29 Haywood Street, in the City Development office.
Vice Mayor Ed Hay said the lease extension sends a “message of strong city support” for the ongoing VISION process.
Most Council members followed his lead, but Barbara Field cited mild concern that VISION needs to do a better job of involving everyone.
The VISION process, initially led by a consultant, featured workshops that came up with an agreed-upon desirable “vision” for the Asheville area.
“Things were bumpy” between VISION organizers and the city, Field complained. Like many things sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce, Field remarked, there seemed to be the feeling that participants had to buy into the process, in order to have a say in the outcome.
VISION Executive Director Pam Wall replied that the nonprofit organization created out of that initial process is “trying to include everyone.” VISION is a community catalyst, she explained, noting that it brings people together, creates dialogue on issues, and sets “benchmarks” (the organization recently published a compilation of statistics about Asheville/Buncombe, such as county and city income levels and high-school dropout rates).
Field said she supports what VISION does, but just questions a process that seems to have a “select group at the table.”
Wall noted that there’s been some difficulty in creating a broader base of participants in ongoing dialogues about the issues brought up by the initial VISION process.
“I think we’re all just processed out,” Field commented. “Now, we’ve got dialogue out the wazoo.”
Mayor Sitnick remarked that she, too, had been skeptical at the start of the VISION process, in the mid-1990s. But the (often long) VISION meetings “changed the flow of dialogue in this community [and] created a marriage … between groups that were, heretofore, contentious.”
Council members gave staff the go-ahead to extend VISION’s lease for another year.