Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Help's West Campus Taking Shape

By Linda Harmon
First of a three-part report:
It’s been almost four years since Ventura County Supervisor Steve Bennett proposed the conversion of the county-owned vacated Baldwin Road Honor Farm into a property with three different but compatible uses: the home for an expansion of Help of Ojai, use of its riverfront property for a sediment deposit area in the Matilija Dam removal project, and a proposed recreation area under control of the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy.
Bennett favors the plan because Help of Ojai has proved “a tremendous commitment to provide services to the needy and elderly in the Ojai Valley and the preservation of the riverfront property creates a valuable, valleywide asset.”
“These three uses of the Honor Farm make a great combination for the citizens of the Ojai Valley,” Bennett said.
The 117-acre property was the subject of protracted negotiations when the Honor Farm jail facility closed in April 2003. Several proposed uses were rejected in favor of the current plan, including a county treatment center for the mentally ill, which drew heated opposition from many local neighbors.
Under director Lisa Meeker and administrative assistant Laurie King, Help of Ojai’s West Campus is the first occupant to make its impact felt at the old Honor Farm location while awaiting the issuance of a conditional use permit.
“Today plans are well under way,” said Lori Baker of the Ventura Planning Department in charge of the project. “Basically we are working on getting a conditional use permit in place for Help of Ojai to operate on site,” said Baker. “They didn’t need any physical expansion, just some minor demolition. They’ll be running their Meals on Wheels Program so we have to make sure they are in compliance. Our biggest holdup has been the transportation issues.”
Baker feels the project is close to approval now that the transportation document is complete. An environmental impact report is not required and it may be exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act. “The next step is to go before the Ventura County Planning Commission and that meeting is scheduled July 15,” added Baker.
Meeker’s nonprofit organization strives to combine community and individual resources to provide services to seniors, youngsters and other at-risk populations in Ojai. In return for making million-dollar improvements to the 42-acre parcel in the next five years, Help of Ojai officials signed a long-term lease last July for a token $100.
“It’s become a social issue for me,” said Meeker touring the site. “We’re transforming a place that has been used for locking people up into a place of service.”
Meeker said Bennett and past executive director of Help of Ojai, Marlene Spencer, met at a senior luncheon they attended and came up with the idea. Help has been so successful it needs to expand but has no room at its current site next to Ojai City Hall.
“Help has taken over the county’s Senior Nutrition Program,” said Meeker, “and with the growing senior population projected to double by the year 2020 the opportunity couldn’t have come at a better time.”
After clearing debris and brush from a large portion of the property, painting and installing electrical and communication systems, Meeker said they are well on their way to reaching their goal of opening the West Campus site that includes more than 11 acres of agricultural land and 80,000 square feet of building space. All of the work thus far has been done with a limited paid staff and thousands of hours of volunteer labor.
The newly renovated support building, with donated furnishings keeping expenditures for equipment to under $1,000, already holds a staff of rotating volunteers with big smiles ready to be part of the West Campus. Still, she is eager for any and all help.
“We’ve been able to do so much because of the help of our volunteers,” added Meeker. The walls of one of the renovated buildings hold a photo exhibit of the smiling members of the Senior and Retired Volunteer Program: “Faces of Help of Ojai” by Fred Rothenberg.
The facility has already begun functioning as a space for general outreach, meetings for Ojai Valley Community Connections, and for a valleywide emergency support center used during the last year’s Day Fire.
Along with the physical rehabilitation of the site Meeker explained volunteers have been busy building a business model as well. According to Meeker they are defining their organizational needs in both short and long terms to best serve the community. Plans now include leasing a large agricultural parcel to Steve Sprinkel for organic farming, housing the Ojai Raptor Center for raptor recovery programs and education, and Concerned Resource and Environmental Workers (C.R.E.W.), a nonprofit youth employment and environmental program.
Meeker said any programs considered for the site will need to benefit the Ojai community.
“We are developing a multi-tenant nonprofit center,” said Meeker, walking through one of the main buildings being used today for local helicopter training by Ventura County firefighters. “The place already has a different feeling about it.”
Meeker used the San Francisco Presidio as an example of reusing an existing complex for shared uses. Standing in the center of the building she pointed to surrounding walls, saying, “These slanted walls are coming out and I’m envisioning this as a day-lit rotunda where visitors will be met and greeted.”
When Meeker first looked at the site she thought many of the buildings would have to be demolished because they were in such bad repair, but she feels differently now.
“Now the longer we look the more we realize we can reuse. I’m so excited. There is so much open space,” she said looking out across the rolling hills and mountains beyond. “We’re working toward a green site.”
Meeker ended her tour telling a final story about the project. “On one of our work days out here I had a young girl in charge of a work crew removing brush,” said Meeker with a gentle smile.
“I found out later that she was the daughter of a former deputy who worked here as a guard. It also turned out that two of the volunteers working with her that day were former inmates. I love what we are doing out here.”
Meeker will arrange tours of the site by appointment. Those interested should call 649-9218 or send an e-mail request to westcampus@helpofojai.org.

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