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Hill Dwellers Hope to Save Kids’ Center

For 70 years, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington has organized sports teams and housed study halls in a large, red-brick building near Capitol Hill’s Lincoln Park, keeping up a steady thread of history throughout the neighborhood’s rocky past and promising present.

The center, one of 12 the club operates in D.C., will close in August, the victim of changing demographics and expensive upkeep, according to club officials. But the building might still house the social center of the area, if a group of residents can somehow arrange to buy or lease the property.

And now, they might have $350,000 from the city to help jump-start their plans.

Ward 6 Councilman Tommy Wells (D) and At-Large Councilman Kwame Brown (D) searched out available money in the city’s fiscal 2008 budget, which the City Council passed in its first reading on May 15, said Charles Allen, Wells’ chief of staff. The money would help keep current programs running after August, ensuring consistency while Wells and Ward 6 residents try to turn the building into a community center, he said. A final vote will take place June 5.

“We’re trying to work it out with the Boys & Girls Club,” Allen said. “We don’t have set in stone a fully complete plan of action.”

Club officials like the idea of transforming the building into a community center but haven’t yet put out a call for potential developers or leasers, said Will Gunn, CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington.

“We’re open to all types of possibilities and we’re very interested in working with the city and residents,” he said.

Couched between renovated Victorian town houses and an active park, the building is worth at least $3 million, according to the D.C. chief financial officer’s Web site. But it is in need of repairs: The pool has a leak, the air conditioning is outdated and paint peels from the walls.

A study conducted by the club found the aging structure was too expensive to maintain and recommended it be closed to mitigate the club’s $1.8 million deficit. Three other D.C.-area branches also will be sold or leased.

Not much can be done if the club wants to sell to the highest bidder to help defray its debt, Allen said, but he also pointed to the organization’s past good work as an indication of its intentions.

“It’s their building. They could sell the thing off to condominiums and make a mint off of it,” he said, but added: “I think there is some good-faith effort from the Boys & Girls Club.”

Gunn wouldn’t say which way the club is leaning. Club officials are looking for a real estate professional to help start a bidding process, he said, but they also plan to hold community meetings to help shape the request for proposal, which would lay out what kind of proposals the club is looking for.

In the meantime, the residents’ group, Neighbors United, hopes to garner interest from private developers and community groups. After weeks of meeting with Wells and rallying the neighborhood, the $350,000 allocation is their first major success. It would go through the Children & Youth Investment Trust Corp., an organization that links public and private money to help children in the District. Wells plans to request that the trust dole out the money to Neighbors United, Allen said.

Will Cobb, who spearheaded the Neighbors United effort, said he has been speaking with Wells and private investors to figure out what’s feasible, and Neighbors United is holding a rally on June 9 to hear community ideas. The center could house an array of different classes and clubs, perhaps even including a scaled-down Boys & Girls Club, residents and officials have said.

A center with programs for every kind of resident could bring together a community divided by Capitol Hill’s increasing development and changing population, Cobb said.

“We’re very excited,” he said. “Our message continues to be the same — to reach across the community.”

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