ITHACA, NY – The Southside Community Center may become an official department of the City of Ithaca, which would merge some of its services and responsibilities with those provided by the Greater Ithaca Activites Center.

The idea of Southside becoming an official part of the city was sparked late last year when the the organization was making a push to give its employees a living wage and seeking support from the city. From there, the question was asked if it might be mutually beneficial for Southside to become part of the city and a task force was assembled.

During last week’s Common Council meeting, representatives from the task force presented the current state of the plan.

Southside, which was established in 1934, currently exists as an independent non-profit focused on providing education and recreation programs for the African-American community in Ithaca.

The organization has faced a number of challenges in recent years. In addition to financial difficulties, it has struggled with leadership instability, with several executive directors coming and going in recent years.

“We would have a couple of great years, then we’d have some instability over the next couple years,” said Richard Onyejuruwa, one of the presenters. “It becomes a constant struggle because you’re not necessarily taking the time to advance, more so you’re having to restart each time.”

What would a merger mean?

Former Southside Board of Directors President Khalil Griffith, noted that the specifics are still a work in progress, but did provide some details of what sorts of changes may come if the Southside Community Center becomes part of the city.

One of the major changes that is slated is that programming directed at teens, including job training programs, would be located at Southside, while Southside’s more youth-oriented programs would move to GIAC.

“I’m at Southside almost every day and every day and you see teens walking through and they’re just sitting around and not doing anything, they’re not active,” said Griffith. “The conversation has come up in the task force is that there comes a point where they grow out of GIAC, where GIAC is seen as a youthful place.”

Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick said he appreciated this idea, noting that it may help foster more neighborhood cohesion.

“I know a lot of kids who will stand on South Plain Street and say, ‘We don’t go over to the north side,’” Myrick said. “Because there are different centers, it reinforces this sort of localism. Whereas if, as a young person, you’re always at GIAC and as you grow older you move over to Southside, it feels like both neighborhoods belong to you.”

Structurally, Southside and GIAC would be overseen by a single executive director and deputy director under them. Southside would then have its own program director focusing specifically on that center. It was suggested that, by splitting responsibilities between the two centers, both Southside and GIAC should be able to enhance their services while remaining cost-efficient.

It was also noted that despite the changes, it was a priority that Southside retain it’s own unique identity and historical heritage.

Moving forward

The task force still has a number of other details to work out, including improving its current programs, securing stable leadership, getting their staff up to a living wage and working out how best to communicate with the city.

Griffith said the task force will continue to work on the details of the model in the coming months, including hosting sessions to solicit public feedback. The intent is to present a final version before the August budget deadline. Should the merge be agreed upon by both sides, Griffith said the hope was to begin implementation as early as Jan. 1, 2017.

If Southside does opt to join with the city, it will then fall to Common Council to make a final decision.

(Note: Since the Common Council meeting last week, Khalil Griffith has stepped down from the Southside Board of Directors. It’s unclear if or how this will impact the merger plan.)

(Featured photo courtesy of Southside Community Center’s Facebook Page)

Michael Smith

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at msmith@ithacavoice.com, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.