Off the market

Council directs staff to draft terms of sale of city land to Jesus Center

Jesus Center Executive Director Laura Cootsona addresses the Chico City Council.

Jesus Center Executive Director Laura Cootsona addresses the Chico City Council.

Photo by Ashiah Scharaga

Shortly before casting a dissenting vote, Councilwoman Ann Schwab told a packed City Council chambers that the Jesus Center’s proposed move to city-owned property in south Chico is not a partisan issue, noting that everyone on the panel has been supportive of the concept.

But the devil is in the details, as the saying goes, and Schwab and Councilman Karl Ory weren’t satisfied that questions about the endeavor have been sufficiently put to rest, especially as it relates to selling the property, rather than entering into a lease agreement with the organization.

Leasing 3.5 acres on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway near the Torres Community Shelter and Valley View Apartments (both of which have long-term leases with the city) would allow the city to still have “skin in the game,” Schwab argued during the council’s regular meeting on Tuesday (May 1). “We would have a vested interest in that property being maintained to the standards that we want,” said Schwab, adding that leadership of nonprofits always ebbs and flows.

The city needs to perform its due diligence, Ory said, asking for a 30- to 40-year proforma and have a private finance committee look at audits of the organization.

But those arguments didn’t sway Councilman Randall Stone, who joined the conservatives on moving forward with a sale. Schwab and Ory cast the two dissenting votes on a motion to direct the city attorney and city manager to determine the terms of a sale to the nonprofit, which aims to relocate, expand and work with other service providers on consolidating services.

Those in favor argued that the project will make providing services in the city more effective and efficient. Mayor Sean Morgan said what Chico is doing currently isn’t working, and that consolidating services will help because people will have one place to go to if they want help.

“What’s the big risk in letting this happen?” he asked.

This discussion was brought before the public after a closed session stalemate at the last council meeting April 17, when Schwab, Ory and Stone walked out in what appeared to be a protest to keeping negotiations of a sale or lease under wraps. Since the council needed five members to move forward, property negotiations were moved to open session.

The topic stirred passionate public interest, as well, evident in the 27 people who approached the dais. The turnout included future and current neighbors of the Jesus Center, as well as service providers and business owners. There was some back and forth when it came to prevailing-wage requirements for the project, with some insisting the expansion would never break ground if prevailing wage was required, while others urged the city to support prevailing wage because of the standards and quality of work it produces.

Jesus Center Executive Director Laura Coostona said the nonprofit is “spilling out” of its current building on Park Avenue, which offers no area for respite or space for homeless folks to spread out, particularly outside. In addition, the facility is always at capacity and has issues with its crumbling showers and walls, she said.

Cootsona said the center plans on seeking private donations for the estimated $12-$18 million buildout, and has argued that prevailing wage is “simply unaffordable” to private, nonprofit enterprises in small markets like Chico.

There was also a lot of debate around the organization vacating its central location. Some argued that consolidating services would effectively warehouse or segregate homeless folks from the rest of the community. Others argued in support, saying they were excited to see what could be accomplished in the new location, which, according to Cootsona, could include mental health services, a low-barrier shelter and potential for more transitional housing.

Chico resident Linda Furr said that the solution is housing, not consolidated services. The city should consider letting the Chico Housing Action Team lease the land there to build Simplicity Village, its tiny homes concept that was approved for exploration on the same night as the Jesus Center’s concept.

“Unfortunately, the Jesus Center plan would duplicate a number of existing services in Chico and won’t produce one house,” Furr said. “We’ve just got to get the unhoused people into houses.”

Future neighbors made arguments that the relocation will overburden the area and cause more problems, not fewer, while current neighbors shared different perspectives. East 12th Street resident Jim McCall said he wants the Jesus Center to move as quickly as possible, as he’s tired of seeing “platoons” of homeless folks walking back and forth for services, along with “the drugs and constant drinking” that “have caused people to pass out on the sidewalk.”

In contrast, neighbor Sandra O’Neill said she wants the nonprofit to stay put, noting that she doesn’t want to force homeless folks to live in one area to receive services.

“We need more than one location in this town to feed and clothe people who need it,” she said.

Stone said that while he understands the concerns about warehousing, the project isn’t attempting to expand “to a grotesque level in a specific spot.” What he was most concerned with was public input and the city having a discussion “behind closed doors” in closed session.

The evening also included a few spats between the public and council members.

If the city sticks with the status quo, Cootsona said, it’ll only lead to disappointment. “Those of us on the left will wonder what happened to our compassionate, caring community. Those of us on the right, we will wonder what happened to our quality of life,” she said. “If so, neither we, nor our neighbors in need, will have taken a significant step forward.”

Schwab said she was “concerned” when Cootsona said the “left” and “right” were going to feel certain ways about the issue, arguing that it undercuts the collaboration on the project. “I think we can get along much better if we don’t think about this as a yes or no or we versus them.”

Ory and Downtown Chico Business Association Executive Director Melanie Bassett also sparred over the DCBA’s reason to unanimously support city sale of the property to the Jesus Center. Ory pressed Bassett as to why the vote was unanimous, to which Bassett replied that it was based on the Jesus Center’s plan and that leasing would make project highly unlikely. Ory asked her, “Do you have information that we don’t have?” to which Bassett replied a curt “maybe” and returned to her seat.