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O.C. Youth Center Fails to Deliver

The $5-million Santa Ana facility, which residents and city leaders say is underused, could lose one its largest funding sources.

July 21, 2006|Jennifer Delson | Times Staff Writer

A $5-million community center built in 2001 to serve Santa Ana youths has been a disappointment to city leaders and others, who say it offers few programs for children and its building is underutilized.

At the Delhi Center's groundbreaking, Santa Ana officials called the property in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods a "field of dreams."

But today, the center's indoor racquetball courts are unused, and its fitness room has no equipment. A garage designed as an apprentice mechanic shop is used instead as a storage room. And most of the time, the other rooms of the 26,000-square-foot center sit empty, center board members said.

There are other signs of trouble. The Delhi Center's longtime executive director last month announced her resignation. At least one-third of the board of directors seats are vacant. And one of the center's largest funding sources may soon dry up because of the facility's lackluster performance.

"It's not the vision I had for the place," said Mary Bloom-Ramos, president of the board of the city's Federal Empowerment Zone. "It was designed to be an asset to the community. It sort of is. But it's a lot of money for a building with very little community activity."

The center, funded by federal, state and local money, sits on city-owned property and is run by an independent nonprofit organization.

Among other grants used to build the center, Delhi received $2.25 million from a state agency now known as the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The money was given on the condition that the facility would be a youth center with summer and after-school programs.

On the center's website and in its literature, few programs for children and teens are listed. A receptionist referred a caller asking for youth programs to another agency.

On a recent summer morning, the center was empty. While children played in cramped driveways across the street, their parents said they wished the center would provide more programs.

"Most people don't even know what goes on in there," neighbor Jose Zuniga said. "There's no interest in involving the community. There are [few] programs for kids, and that's what we really need here."

On another day, about 30 teens attended a computer class at the center. Twenty other students come each day in the summer for a science and math program run by a nonprofit that uses the space without charge.

Irene Martinez, the center's executive director who plans to leave her post in November, declined to comment for this story but has previously said that 20,000 people use the center each year. A state inspection that ended in June concluded that 100 to 150 children use the center each day for programs including a science academy and a literacy program.

But Martin Cordoves, who was hired last year to handle economic development programs at the center, said he didn't see much activity in the building.

"I can tell you ... the majority of the time the rooms are empty," Cordoves said. "The majority of people in Santa Ana do not know about the Delhi community center."

Ron Ono, the city's park and recreation administrator, said Santa Ana officials were concerned about the lack of activity at the center.

"The whole purpose of the center was that it be oriented for youth," he said. "We were just hoping things would change."

Attendance for adult programs also has been limited. The Federal Empowerment Zone is considering eliminating $100,000 in annual support for an entrepreneurial program that last year attracted a total of 315 people to a business expo and several business seminars.

"Do the math.... That's a pretty expensive program," said Bloom-Ramos, whose organization directs federal funds to worthy organizations in its 4-square-mile area of focus.

Delhi Center literature advertises a work training program, a course for becoming a licensed day-care provider, senior bingo, parenting classes and AIDS outreach, according to the center's calendar and literature.

Events with the most attendance are run by outside groups that rent the rooms, employees and board members said.

Author and motivational speaker Camilo Cruz rents space in the Delhi Center and charges $20 for admission. A trio called Cantamerica Music is scheduled to play at the center Aug. 26; admission is $20. The group's website lists director Martinez as the group's manager.

Martinez, a prodigious fundraiser, is widely respected in Santa Ana for her work in moving Delhi, a 30-year-old nonprofit group, from its headquarters in former Army barracks to its multimillion-dollar home.

The building "is a testament to her determination," board President Frank Haydis said.

In an interview last year, Martinez conceded that "there are a lot of pieces still missing" at the center. A major problem, she said, was the lack of funds needed to finish the building and run programs.

"It has been a build-as-you-go process," she said.

From 2001 to 2003 -- the last year federal tax returns for Delhi were available -- Martinez's salary rose nearly 30% to $92,000.

Haydis said that despite Delhi's challenges, "we'll deal with things. We know we will be here years from now. A major change is coming, and the next chapter of the Delhi Center is soon to be written."

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