LORAIN — A charter school in downtown Lorain looking to build a gymnasium for its students likely will find out the project’s fate next week at a regular City Council meeting.
A proposed tax abatement for the project was discussed at a Finance and Claims Committee meeting Monday night with only one member voting against it being considered by the whole body.
Safety-Service Director Dan Given said the administration is in favor of the gym, which would allow Spectrum to widen the services it offers to students in Lorain County with autism spectrum disorders.
“The project itself everybody speaks very highly of them,” he said. “I believe it’s a telling story of helping those who absolutely need our help. This is an example of our tax dollars not going into someone’s pocket to fatten the bottom line. This is going into a definite program that will impact the lives of kids who need the help the most.”
Given said the abatement would be for 15 years and would completely abate the taxes on the gym but not on the land the gym would sit on and with the gym’s location off of West Erie Avenue, it would be outside the downtown entertainment district.
Cheryl Weber, the CEO of the school, said the project is needed because during the colder months of the year, the more than 190 students in the program must do their daily exercises in the school’s hallway.
Weber also addressed concerns that the gym would lead to students “milling around the community.”
“I want you to know that our students are picked up every morning and dropped off back home every evening,” she said. “We provide transportation 100 percent for every student. There will be no students that will be walking home. We provide a safe and secure environment for almost 200 students and we have a sterling record.”
Weber said the gym will be sensory appropriate and will have special opportunities for the students to engage in a way that allows them to succeed.
Councilwoman Mary Springowski, D-at large, said the concerns regarding people “milling around” had stemmed from media reports that there would be residential units in downtown for students.
“We’ve seen what happens with the Nord Center and then you get the nuisance calls and then they become victims if they’re preyed upon,” she said.
Springowski said she has an understanding of the autism spectrum, citing her uncle who was “profoundly autistic” and while she does understand sensory needs, she was afraid it would turn into people living downtown using the services, something that business owners on Broadway had expressed to her.
Weber said she doesn’t feel as though the gym and proposed plans for residential units have anything to do with each other and no nuisance complaints have ever been filed against her students.
“It’s always ‘We love your mission but we don’t want it in our backyard,’” she said. “And I understand that but our students have autism. They don’t have physical challenges. They don’t have mental disabilities. They do know how to learn and they can be successful.”
Project developer Jon Veard said he was offended Springowski would compare the autistic adults and children who use the Spectrum services to recovering addicts who use the Nord Center, saying he had a brother with developmental disabilities.
An argument ensued at the meeting regarding Veard’s word choice to describe his brother, with Springowski saying it offended her, like her comments offended Veard.
“Don’t tell me I don’t understand,” she said. “I understand more than you realize.”
Springowski said she wasn’t opposed to the gym because every child that goes to school deserves a way to release their energy, but she was just mentioning concerns of the people who own businesses along Broadway.
Councilman Joe Koziura, D-at large, was the lone no vote to send the abatement to full Council not because he disagreed with Spectrum’s mission but because the city is trying to transform its downtown.
“I really believe we need to take a look at our tax abatements in the city and see who needs it in terms of development for jobs or development for rehabbing homes,” he said. “I don’t question you intent, but I do question the abatement considering there will only be one or two new employees so really no new additional income tax.”
The project would take place in the city’s 2nd Ward and its councilman, Dennis Flores, said he was in favor of the gym and the tax abatement that would come with it.
“To think that these kids are going to mix in with the homeless and other problems we have downtown is a disservice to Spectrum,” he said. “I’m asking Council to support this. This residential on Broadway is a separate matter for a different day, but the gym for these kids is something that’s needed.”