In Uphams Corner, existing youth center ponders future role

Last month, at a hastily called press conference at the Alexander-Magnolia community room, elected officials and representatives from the Salvation Army proudly announced that Boston had been selected to receive $80 million in funding from the Salvation Army to construct a new community center on Dudley Street. Getting little mention that day was the fact that almost a decade earlier, another organization had eyed Dudley Street for a new community center.

Back in 1996, the Bird Street Community Center- headquartered in the upper floors of a municipal building on Columbia Road- began organizing around building a new home for itself in the Uphams Corner/Dudley area. The group sought to raise $11 million for the project, and as it moved through fundraising, the city deeded it a parcel of land at the corner of Dudley and Clifton Streets to be the home of the new center. The site was prepared and construction plans were developed, but eventually Bird Street's fundraising efforts stalled and so too did the project.

Fast forward to today. As the Salvation Army begins to make definitive plans for the new state-of-the-art community center, part of which will be laid out on that same Clifton Street corner, some within the Bird Street organizations feel that their contributions to the community are being forgotten. What began as excitement about partnering with the Salvation Army, they say, has turned to concern about their own center's future in the neighborhood.

"When we were approached by the Salvation Army we saw this as an opportunity to definitely finish fundraising [for Bird Street], and if they could build it, we could operate out of the center. That's what we had expected as a partnership," said Kaidi Carrington, president of Bird Street's board of directors.

Carrington said that it soon became apparent to her that the Salvation Army had a different idea about what Bird Street's role would be.

Lt. Col. Fred Van Brunt, commander of the Massachusetts division of the Salvation Army, said this week that the specific nature of the Salvation Army's partnerships with Bird Street and other organizations had not yet been determined. He added that the profound need in that community suggests that there is a place for multiple centers serving young people.

"The need, as I've understood it from the people I've talked to, is that the need is so great that no one organization, no matter how large a facility they may have, is going to be able to meet that need," said Van Brunt.

"What they really needed was our land, and the planning that we did for the past five years to come up with the design of the center and the programming of the new center," said Carrington.

The land that the city designated to Bird Street in 2001 to construct their center was re-designated last year to the Salvation Army, and Bird Street officials say they were compelled to sell to the Salvation Army an additional 15,000-sq. ft parcel of land that it owned outright.

The sale of the land created a conundrum for Bird Street. Carrington said that they wanted to sell their parcel for $820,000. That number, she said, represented money Bird Street had raised from donations to purchase the site, hire a project manager, and commission architectural plans. Since Bird Street would not be building that center, she anticipated that funders would want their money back.

"We wanted to make sure that our funders got repaid and that we remained in good standing," said Carrington.

Bird Street ultimately agreed to sell for $575,000, Carrington said.

Van Brunt stated that because final documents had not been signed, he would not comment on the agreement reached with Bird Street. However, as Carrington predicted, some donors are upset, and have begun asking for their money back.

But beyond the burden of repaying donors, Bird Street officials are also concerned that the pool of funds available to their organization might dry up as attention shifts to raising the $20 million that must be raised in order to receive the full $80 million gift from the Salvation Army.

"An announcement like this together with an announcement that the Salvation Army needs to raise another $20 million for construction - which is more than we were going to use to build our whole center - causes concern about where our funding is going to come from for the next three years," said Bird Street's Executive Director Andrea Kaiser.

In the meantime, Bird Street's programming is taking on new members and interest in their center is on the rise, she says.

"We've got more kids than we've ever had before," said Kaiser.

There's a clear need for Bird Street, both until the new Salvation Army Center is built and beyond, she said, and the board is currently planning for how it can continue to meet that need.

"We think it's wonderful that the community is going to get this major center. We just don't want the community that we have served all this time to forget what Bird Street has contributed in the past and what it can continue to contribute," said Kaiser.