After Grant Denial, Community Center Seeks New Path to Funding

Vergil Demery

After being denied a Community Development Block Grant from Lorain County, the Phillis Wheatley Community Center is exploring alternate methods to improve the physical accessibility of the center.

The money would have funded a lift near the building’s front staircase as well as several disability parking spaces, which would allow disabled visitors access to the center’s ground floor and basement.

The Oberlin Underground Railroad Society owns the Phillis Wheatley Center. The society wants to improve the center’s infrastructure and programming so that it can become a hub of community activity.

“We are currently in the process of pulling together a collection of assets for people to use to help themselves find pathways out of poverty,” said Tracie Haynes, executive director of the Oberlin Underground Railroad Society.

Haynes, who is spearheading the project, said she is still optimistic about the potential for installing a lift, citing local churches and the Oberlin Project as organizations that have done so recently. She said the Community Center’s upgrades can be completed but only with adequate funding.

“We’re also very interested in doing community development,” Haynes said. “We are relatively new, [because we] do a lot of programs. We do some advocacy. We are looking at developing a community center here that would empower people more than what is currently available to the citizens that live in the town.”

With proper accessibility features, Haynes said, the center could function as a valuable resource for Oberlin residents, especially seniors.

Currently, the center is only accessible via staircase. The existing property’s size prevents the construction of an ADA-compliant ramp.

“Part of the process of applying for the grant involved collecting the demographics of the town,” Haynes said. “We have an aging population — people use scooters, wheelchairs and canes. [The center] is a steep, two-story building and the neighborhood has a need for accessibility. We thought that our application would be in keeping with some of those funds for community development.”

The activities the center hosts include bingo nights, barbecues and performances by community members. These activities help the center engage with its surrounding community, Haynes said.

According to Haynes, the center’s failure to secure funding is not without controversy. Oberlin city officials encouraged the society to apply for a Community Development Grant due to the fact that no city grants existed for spaces like the center. This limits the Oberlin Underground Railroad Society’s ability to complete projects.

However, the city’s Planning and Development Department also applied for the same Community Development Grant months later. Haynes said she knew the center would not receive the grant after hearing of the city’s application because there is a history of inter-governmental grant funding.

Haynes was told by the grant dispersal controller’s office that Lorain County would not have considered two applications from the same city, especially one as small as Oberlin.

According to an article in the Oberlin News-Tribune, the Lorain County Community Development Office was unable to accommodate all grant requests because it received about $500,000 in applications, but only $314,000 in funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the grant provider.

The city of Oberlin received $100,000 of the county’s grant money to conduct road repairs along Groveland Street, while the OURS did not receive funding for the center’s accessibility project. Haynes said that applying alongside the city was a “deal killer” that significantly hurt the center’s chances of securing funding.

Members of OURS will meet May 16 with Interim City Manager Sal Talarico and City Council to negotiate the allocation of funding for the center. The city wants to push funding for the project to 2017, while Haynes is adamant about finishing accessibility upgrades to the center by the end of the current year.

The Lorain County Community Development department has suggested the center work with the Solid Waste Management department to obtain materials, but Haynes said she is looking to accomplish the project in one fell swoop.

“We are currently installing a commercial kitchen that we already have the funds dedicated for, and we are also making energy upgrades,” Haynes said. “Surprisingly, there haven’t been any funds for that from the city. The handicap accessibility was the area that we were seeking funds for. We have started some of that work, but we do not have the funds to complete it.”