Sun04202014

Last updateTue, 04 Nov 2014 9pm

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HELP Center open forum provides few answers

In response to community concerns about the viability of the proposed HELP Center project, the center’s organizers held an “open community forum” last Thursday at the University of Mary Washington campus in Dahlgren.

Unfortunately, the event appeared to be one step forward and one step back in the effort to build a $8.4 million facility where multiple service agencies serving at risk individuals could be housed under one roof.

 

NEITHER OPEN NOR A FORUM
There were about 50 citizens present and almost all of them were enthusiastic supporters of the HELP Center who were vocal in their praise for the project. “I totally support the HELP Center,” said Koontz Campbell of King George. “I believe all the citizens of our county are important.”

However, HELP Center organizers and the board of Project FAITH, which is the developer of the new facility, seemed to undercut their own positive messaging by staging an open forum that was neither open nor a forum.

Public comment was prohibited at the meeting. Recording devices were banned. Photos were restricted. And there were no audience questions allowed except those that were submitted in writing and pre-screened during a 10-minute interval.

Project FAITH Board President Phyllis Ashton and Project Faith Board member Judy Bowen presented a scripted 30-minute slide show that touted the need for and the positive benefit of the proposed HELP Center.

But the presentation also claimed the project has been treated unfairly by the King George County Board of Supervisors.

And, Ashton said the project has been threatened by a member of the Ku Klux Klan and is a victim of racism and of bias in the media.

The July 11 meeting was organized by Froncé Wardlaw, the executive director of Project FAITH, and its board members. Project FAITH is the nonprofit developer of the project which hopes to use state and federal grants and tax credits to build a proposed 42,000-square foot facility. The site plan for the project, approved last month, indicates four buildings adding up to 30,500 square feet.

The county’s request, on behalf of Project FAITH, for $700,000 in federal Community Development Block Grant funding was recently turned down by the state.

Wardlaw and Project FAITH have been successful in their efforts over the past 13 years to provide affordable housing for low-income, elderly and disabled King George residents. Using state and federal grants, tax credits and loans from housing agencies, Project FAITH has become a primary affordable housing project in the region, building Angelwood, Angelwood II and Angel Court in King George County to provide housing assistance to those who need it.

But their attempt to build the HELP Center has become increasingly controversial. In a July 1 letter to Ashton seeking additional information from HELP Center organizers, King George County Attorney Eric Gregory said the proposed project “while noble in vision and purpose appears to be struggling.”

NO QUESTIONS, NO PHOTOs
The conduct of Wardlaw and the Project Faith Board at the “open community forum” appeared to underscore the county attorney’s concern. Ashton declared that King George County “gave valuable land to the YMCA and $4.5 million” to build a facility “that serves 100” swim team members. “Shouldn’t the same level of commitment be made to low income persons and families?” Ashton asked.

In an apparent response to complaints in the community about the need to produce an audit of Project FAITH funds, Ashton said, “Audits have never been requested by the King George Board of Supervisors. If an audit would be requested, it would be provided.” There was no financial information made available at the Thursday meeting.

But the county has asked in its July 1 letter from the county attorney for numerous Project FAITH and HELP center financial documents and is awaiting a response.

Ashton told those attending the meeting that Rappahannock Community College “has not ruled out participation in the HELP Center.”   An altered letter with a false claim of 2012 support by RCC for participation in the project was one of the things that fueled the recent controversy. According to RCC President Elizabeth Crowther, RCC did consider being involved in the project in 2010 “but there are no current plans to be involved.”

The chosen moderator of the meeting was Rishi Awatramani, who was introduced by Project Faith as a “a New York union organizer and a long time activist for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights.”

Awatramani, the organizing director for the Virginia New Majority, declared the meeting was not a forum and said, “we’re not going to be tolerant of disrespectful behavior.”

Following the meeting, Bowen intervened when a reporter asked Wardlaw whether she felt the meeting had been a success.

Wardlaw was able to get out, “I am very pleased”, before she was silenced by Bowen who said, “No questions and no photographs.”

Although there was not much new information provided, the tension interjected into the meeting by the moderator and by the board seemed to be unfounded. The small crowd was well behaved and supportive of the plan to build the HELP Center facility.

Current plans call for the project to be constructed on 5.5 acres of prime real estate located on the north side of Route 3, just across from the King George County Sheriff’s Office.

The county agreed to give the real estate for the HELP Center project in May of 2012 after Wardlaw signed a performance agreement.

Two building permit applications for the project were submitted to the county’s office of Community Development last week on July 9 with two buildings on each plan. County staff tells applicants that such a review can take up to 45 days.

But an Aug. 1 deadline is looming for the pouring of all building footers that would follow building permit issuance, contracting for the work, and clearing and grading.

The agreement with the county also states that the Help Center must be completed by Aug. 1, 2014, or the real estate will revert to King George County.

Unfortunately, the reversion clause also provides that county taxpayers will be forced to pick-up the costs of any liens, loans, unfulfilled grants and other liabilities that have been incurred by the project by that time.

Richard Leggitt

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