BELL GARDENS — When the Bell Gardens Human Services Assn. received a $280,000 state grant last year to remodel its aging buildings, the agency saw a chance to greatly expand services to senior citizens and low-income families in Southeast Los Angeles County.
But those plans have hit a roadblock: The city intends to revitalize a 140-acre commercial area along Eastern Avenue by attracting tax-producing businesses. City officials say this means that the nonprofit agency's leased facilities will be taken for commercial enterprise.
Instead of remodeling and expanding, the Human Services Assn. is scrambling to find a new home.
Unless it quickly finds the right property, Executive Director Rex M. Dye said, the agency could lose its state grant.
"I don't really want to say this is a matter of life or death for us," Dye said. "We can continue to operate if we lose the grant, but we would have to cut programs, and without those programs we will be able to provide only very limited services to our community."
Dye had envisioned building a larger center for senior citizens, complete with wheelchair ramps and new restrooms. But if the agency cannot move to a site of comparable size, Dye said, the senior center and all day-care programs would be the first to go.
Under the rules of the grant, construction of a new center must be completed by April, 1988.
"If they are under construction by then, we will extend the deadline, but if we find they are just sitting on the money and not trying to get anything done, we will divert that money to another agency." said Kenneth Swinford, manager of the Senior Center Bonds Act Program in the state Department of Aging. "We've got a lot of people waiting for money."
The agency, which has occupied a former church and gymnasium on Ludell and Ajax streets since 1940, is in the middle of the Central City commercial redevelopment area, created in 1979 to stimulate business along Eastern Avenue. The land and three buildings used by the agency are leased from the Presbyterian Synod of Southern California.
In May, the city agreed to work with the agency and the Synod for 90 days to agree on the location and price of a new site. During that time, they must present a proposal to the city outlining what it would build there and how much it would cost. But Dye said they have had little success in finding a suitable site.
The synod's current property was appraised at $625,000, but Dye said it would cost that much to acquire a piece of land of comparable size in the city--with nothing left over for building costs. He said that though the redevelopment district was created eight years ago, no one thought the city would want to take the property.
The synod, which is committed to the work of the agency, has said it would continue to support the agency by using proceeds from a sale to buy a new site, said Thomas P. DeMund , director of real estate for the synod.
"We've looked at eight to 10 properties, but almost all of them are cost-prohibitive for us," Dye said. "All we will be able to get in this city for $625,000 is a vacant piece of land."
Under state redevelopment law, the city must offer fair market value for the land and provide relocation assistance. If property owners are reluctant to sell, the city can also invoke its eminent-domain powers to condemn the land.
"I don't see us getting to that point here," said Community Development Director Robert T. Dickey. "We are very willing to work with HSA (the agency) to help them find a new site."
The agency is funded by the synod and by the United Way. It provides nutrition programs, counseling, employment referrals, home care, meal delivery and other services to seniors in Bell Gardens, Artesia, Bell, Cudahy, Maywood, Commerce, Downey, and portions of Bellflower and Cerritos.
Two days a week, hot meals and social activities such as field trips, table games and exercise programs are offered at the agency and its satellite centers in Artesia, Bellflower, Commerce and Downey.
The agency runs a food distribution program and a parent / infant care program for physically and mentally handicapped children. It also offers immigration workshops for illegal aliens.
More than 4,000 Southeast area senior citizens came to the agency for assistance last year, said Lynn Cavette, director of senior center programs.
For the 15 to 20 people who regularly attend the center each week, it is the only place where they can receive many different services, eat a nutritious meal and be around friends, Cavette said.
"There are other places in the county where seniors can get different kinds of help, but these seniors are low-income people, and many of them don't have the energy to wait in a welfare or Social Security line or have someone help them fill out complicated forms," Cavette said. "This is a place where they can come and get that kind of help. It's also a place where they can come to not be alone."
Ruth Lovejoy, 79, of Bell Gardens said she started coming to the center in 1982 to join a support group for the recently widowed. Since then, she has become a volunteer in the home care program.
"If this place closed its doors, I wouldn't know where to go," Lovejoy said. Several elderly women sitting nearby nodded in agreement. "People have been coming here for years. They know and trust this place."
Dye said he is "cautiously optimistic" that a site will be found in time to meet the deadline, and state officials said they are willing to work closely with Dye and the city to prevent the agency from losing its grant. But Swinford warned that progress must be made soon.
"This really has been an unfortunate situation because they had some definite plans in mind and they fell through," Swinford said. "But if it comes to April and it appears nothing is going to happen, we will probably have to give the money to someone else. We can't go on like this forever."