Jon Greenberg

Six members of the Escape Advisory Council met Thursday evening to discuss how to overcome obstacles preventing the construction of the Escape, a community center that will cater to children and teens in the city’s Dixwell neighborhood.

The project, the lease for which was signed in September 2015, would serve as a place for young people in Dixwell to relax, do homework and participate in a variety of extracurricular activities. But Emilie Steinnagel, who chairs the Escape Advisory Council and led Thursday’s meeting at ‘r Kids Family Center on Dixwell Avenue, said progress on the project has ground to a halt since the spring.

“We’re waiting for money to be freed up to finish the building and for clearances from the city engineer,” Steinnagel said.

The Advisory Council usually works on how the day-to-day operations of the center will work after it opens. But in light of the multi-month holdup, Steinnagel and the rest of those present at Thursday’s meeting spent most of their hour together discussing how best to get construction moving again. There currently is no timeline for the project’s construction, Steinnagel said.

City Engineer Giovanni Zinn toured the site of the future center last spring and pointed out a few problems with the building, most notably one concerning the building’s electrical grid, according to Steinnagel. She said the project has been stalled ever since because there is not enough money allocated to the project to address these problems and construction cannot resume until they are addressed.

Steinnagel said she was not sure why funding had run out for the project, but she and others present Thursday discussed the possibility that the shortage in funding has to do with the state’s financial woes.

City spokesman Laurence Grotheer said chaos at the state level is affecting the way the city chooses to spend money. Connecticut is currently facing a multi-billion dollar deficit, and the state legislature has still not finalized a budget for the current fiscal year, which began on July 1.

“There are payments to the city that have not been made by the state, and … there is uncertainty about when they will be paid,” Grotheer said.

Grotheer added that without these state payments, which number in the millions of dollars, the city will not be able to function. Because the city is facing such significant cash-flow issues, there is little room for spending on nonessential projects. However, he emphasized that he could not speak on whether the shortage of funding for the Escape is connected to state budget issues.

Steinnagel said she drafted a letter that she planned to send to Mayor Toni Harp and the Board of Alders asking the officials to do everything they can to move things forward. All but one of those present at the meeting agreed to sign the letter.

Timothy White ’20 of the Yale College Democrats, who was at Thursday’s meeting, was one of the five who agreed to sign the letter.

White said the YCD has worked on getting performance and tutoring groups at Yale to provide programming at the center alongside City Youth Services Director Jason Bartlett. Bartlett leads the effort to build the Escape but could not come to Saturday’s meeting because he was sick, according to Steinnagel.

Dems Communications Director Makayla Haussler ’19, who is involved in the Dems’ effort to provide programming for the center, said several Yale groups, including the Urban Debate League and MEChA, had also volunteered to run programs. Haussler said she was told by Bartlett toward the end of last semester that the center would be open soon. She expected the center to be ready for programming when she returned to campus after summer break but found instead that it still had not been completed.

Haussler said she talked with Bartlett about the possibility of moving some of the scheduled programming for the Escape at the Farnam Center, a facility in Fair Haven that holds extracurricular activities for children, until construction ends. The Advisory Council discussed this plan Thursday, and some of those present supported the idea. But Randi Robin Rodriguez, a city resident who runs ‘r Kids, a center that provides services to vulnerable children and their families and also hosted the council’s meeting Thursday, had reservations about the Farnam idea.

“To get something up and running in a neighborhood where it didn’t exist before requires a lot of effort, neighborhood-building and relationship-building,” she said, drawing on her own experience opening ‘r Kids. “I can envision, based on some of the feedback we’ve gotten, that it might create a rift between the Escape and the community, who might say, ‘Oh, you’re going over to Farnam.’”

The building that is planned to house the Escape was previously a community outreach center.

Jon Greenberg jonathan.greenberg@yale.edu | @JonGreenbergYDN