By Jim Walsh
No one doubts that Gilbert is a fast-growing, affluent community, but there are thousands of needy people who are often overlooked, hidden behind its sea of attractive homes with red tile roofs and parking lots full of shiny luxury cars.
Although these needy people aren’t part of Gilbert’s image, their existence was showcased in a needs assessment performed three years ago. Now, the town is advertising for a nonprofit social service agency that would operate a new “one-stop shop,” with a variety of services, in the old Page Park Center, which used to house a library.
Despite some reservations, if not outright opposition, from Town Council members, the council approved spending more than $1 million in federal funds to renovate the closed library, which was built in 1964 and is next door to the Gilbert Community Center (which houses the Gilbert Senior Center) and adjacent to the Gilbert Boys and Girls Club.
The location seems fitting, not only because of its central downtown location, but because Page Park is named for the late Walter Page, a Gilbert mayor in the 1930s who owned a grocery store, according to the town’s website. Page was known for his generosity to needy people during the Depression, when he extended credit to people who were out of work and gave marbles to children.
“We want it to be a one-stop shop for resources and information,” said Melanie Dykstra, the town’s community resources program supervisor.
She said the town has advertised for a nonprofit that would operate the new facility, with the Town Council selecting an operator as early as Aug. 17. The services provided would be some of those identified by the needs assessment, but the specific services are yet to be identified.
These services might include a combination of mental health counseling, immunizations, a dental clinic and counseling for veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
It would be the operator’s responsibility to recruit organizations that might be interested in providing the services, Dykstra said.
The “request for qualifications” says that Gilbert had grown from a town of 5,717 in 1980 to 242,955 in 2015, with a population of more than 300,000 expected at build out in 2030.
While Gilbert is generally an affluent bedroom community, the document identifies 14,000 residents who are living below the federal poverty level, or 6.4 percent of the population. More than 26,000 residents qualify as “low income,” and more than 8,000 residents 65 or older live below the poverty level.
Earlier, the council voted 5-2 to approve renovations at the closed library, with one council member concerned it might create a welfare state in Gilbert and eventually become a liability for taxpayers. Another warned that he doesn’t want Gilbert to support it financially and a third saying the wellness center would be a perfect use of Community Development Block Grants.
Tom Freestone, a retired justice of the peace who spent more than 30 years representing the East Valley in a variety of elective offices, spoke in favor of providing more social services in Gilbert.
He said people without adequate healthcare are in need of services and that the town can control the types of services offered through a request for proposals issued to service providers.
“You can design by contract. I think it will be a great benefit,’’ Freestone said. “That is an ideal place for it.’’
Although he has always considered himself a fiscal conservative, Freestone also has spent most of his life responding to the needs of the less fortunate and has never turned his back on people in need. He served decades on the board of Mesa’s Marc Center, a wide-ranging, nonprofit social service agency that serves the developmentally disabled and also provides behavioral health services.
“They are in denial. They pretend that if they don’t have a place for them, they are not there,’’ Freestone said, with low-income Gilbert residents generally going to nearby Chandler to get services and Mesa’s nonprofits, such as Marc, offering regional services.
Freestone said he would like to see the wellness center offer healthcare to people without insurance, aimed at reducing communicable diseases, and dental services.
“It’s very unfair for those other cities to carry the burden of another town,” Freestone said. “We do have some people on welfare, through no choice of their own.”
But council members Victor Petersen and Jared Taylor voted against the construction project, expressing doubts about the lack of a specific plan for services and reservations about whether the town should have any role in social services.
“I support that outside of government. I think in the long run, it will end up a significant taxpayer liability,” Petersen said. “My view is that it will end up growing the welfare state in Gilbert.”
Taylor said there are other social services in the area, including some that are privately run, and he does not want to duplicate services.
“We don’t really have a defined strategy here,’’ he said. “It does move us more into the business of social services.’’
Council member Jordan Ray also expressed some misgivings about the project, saying, “I don’t want the town to run this facility or pay for this facility. I look forward to handing it off to someone else.”
But council member Scott Anderson said the wellness center is the intended use of the federal Community Development Block Grants program that would provide more than $1.1 million to fund the renovations.
“I can’t think of a better use of these funds. I’d rather put this money into something that impacts lives.’’
Council member Eddie Cook said that one possible use for the wellness center might be a free dental clinic, offered on a limited basis by St. Vincent de Paul.
“That’s the kind of use I can see happen,’’ he said.
The town has limited social services available near Page Park already, at the Gilbert Senior Center operated by Azcend, formerly known as the Chandler Christian Community Center.
The services offered by Azcend include a food bank and the Community Action Program, which provides rent and utility assistance. The Chandler and Gilbert senior centers provided 70,000 meals last year, including home-delivered meals.
The food banks in Chandler and Gilbert distributed more than 17,000 food boxes that fed more than 58,000 people. Chandler also is home to My Sister’s Place, a shelter for women and children fleeing domestic violence.
Freestone said he has offered to take Petersen and Taylor on a tour of the Freestone campus of Marc Center, to show them how a nonprofit can be cost-effective and make a huge difference in people’s lives.
“I have a great feeling that we will have this resolved favorably,’’ Freestone said.