The 'hub' of East End to be auctioned

Just as the East End is experiencing revitalization, rebirth and renewal, a part of its soul and history is scheduled to be sold at absolute auction later this month.

The Phillis Wheatley Center, a community and social gathering place for decades, will be sold at 11 a.m. Aug. 28. The Brenda D. Cowan Coalition for Kentucky Inc., which owns the building, will use the proceeds to finance programs, said Karen Trivette, chief executive officer for the coalition.

"It's been many years coming," Trivette said, adding that keeping the building open has been costly to other programs and to staff. "We have tried many, many things to keep that building occupied."

Trivette said with only two occupants — the Police Athletic League and a church, Open Door Ministries — the cost of utilities for the 6,000-square-foot center could run between $1,600 and $1,800 a month.

The coalition owns the building "free and clear of debt," Trivette said, and it appraised at $400,000 in 2001. But it has been a "big drain" on the work the coalition is doing in these economic times when the flow of money has become little more than a trickle for non-profits. "It is very hard for this organization to let go of that program," she said. "It has done some wonderful things."

The coalition had planned a 56-unit, $7.3 million renovation of the old YWCA building on Cross Keys Road to house domestic violence survivors and their families. It also was to have an 18,000-square foot campus for other social service organizations.

But that project, The Phoenix, is now on hold if not off the drawing board altogether, Trivette said.

Trivette said the dilapidated property at 1060 Cross Keys, which the city has threatened to demolish, will go up for auction in September if something can't be arranged to get it built.

She said problems with the builder halted the plans. Because the builder is listed on all applications for state and federal grant money, the project can't proceed without that builder.

The coalition is eligible to reapply for the Kentucky Housing Corporation grant of $5.7 million in January and could probably receive expedited processing, she said. But that's only if coalition officials and supporters can find some way to stop the auction in September.

If not, the coalition will lose both sites. "We will still be OK as far as an organization, serving 11 counties," Trivette said. "Those properties are big liabilities."

The Wheatley Center, 647 Chestnut Street, was established in 1920 in the traditionally African-American community in downtown Lexington near the Third Street corridor. It was run by the YWCA for decades until 2004, when the YWCA ended its association with the national organization. The organization was renamed for a Lexington firefighter who was killed five years ago while responding to a domestic violence call in rural Fayette County.

The coalition focuses on programs for women survivors of domestic violence and their children and families.

Throughout its existence, Phillis Wheatley center, named for America's first black poet, has provided educational and empowerment programs for area residents and for organizations needing a place to meet.

"It brought a lot of different organizations together," said George Moorman, who once headed the Eastend Empowerment Program, which was housed in the center. "There were churches, political organizations and schools. If they needed to meet to air some differences or develop strategies or strengthen the community, that was the place to do it."

Moorman, who wasn't aware of the pending sale, recalled that his daughters, now 32 and 33, participated in a dance club there when they were 4 and 5 years old. "It was the hub of the community," he said.

Trivette said when the community center was built at William Wells Brown Elementary School a few blocks away, the children flocked to it for its newness. "We lost all our after-school programs to that building because it is so nice," she said. "There just weren't enough tenants to fill it."

Karen Deprey, of Keller Williams Bluegrass Realty, said she often hears people reminisce as she leads them through the building. "Everybody that goes in there remembers growing up in this area," she said.

She said the building has a gymnasium, a kitchen and several office spaces.

Deprey said there have been several interested inquiries, but nothing solid. "These guys can't hold up any longer just waiting. None of the non-profits have any money."

The Cross Keys location has been closed since 2005, but the Wheatley Center has always been open.

Ellen Parks, who was center director for 10 years, leaving in 2005, said she saw the notice in the newspaper, and "it just leaves a lump in my throat."

Parks said she has a picture of her mother, a YWCA board member, standing among the steel girders as the center was being built at the permanent Chestnut location in the 1950s. It has been based at two other places.

"The best time of my life with the YWCA was when I was at that center," Parks said. "It gave more to me than what I was able to give back to it."

Ginney Ramsey of the Catholic Action Center is encouraging various churches and community organizations to form a collaboration to buy the center and allow a program such as Bluegrass Youth for Christ to run it.

"It's got to be a ministry," Ramsey said. "It's not going to make money, but it could get by with support.

"It is familiar and there is something to be said about being familiar, and it is a part of the spirit of the neighborhood. It's going to take people stepping up and saying the children in the community are important."

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