New and Expanded WBRP Programs Aim to Increase West Side Impact
Bloomington resident and Project Leader for the West Bloomington Revitalization Project Armando Baez is well aware of the negative perceptions that surround the West Side.
“So much of our reality is told in stories -- so depending on what story’s being told, that’s what’s real to whoever’s hearing that story.”
He says stories in the news and other media focusing on violence in West Bloomington inform the public’s opinion of the West Side as unsafe.
But there are other stories to be told about the neighborhoods west of Market Street.
“I think it takes going and spending time in that space,” Baez said. “It’s even as simple as taking a walk down Washington Street past Downtown, just to see what’s there.”
Anyone strolling down Washington Street Saturday witnessed something big happening on the West Side.
The WBRP hosted what Baez hopes will become West Bloomington’s own annual festival. The celebration included free food from The Dinner Bell food truck, free Carl’s Ice Cream, live music, a dunk tank, kids’ activities and a bike raffle.
The occasion marked WBRP’s move from its cramped offices to a three-story building across the street at 724 W. Washington St.
Baez said while the WBRP made the move one year ago, the time was finally right this weekend to officially welcome the community out to have a look.
“There was so much going on between last summer and early spring this year that there was no time to have a grand opening or an open house, and it just so happened that 2018 is our 10-year anniversary too,” he said.
Baez hopes the festival and future events will give those unfamiliar with the West Side a chance to see the work WBRP and others are doing in the community.
The nonprofit moved from a smaller rented building just across the street one year ago. The new building offered the WBRP the chance to own its offices and more space for its nine programs, including the new Bike Co-op.
For years the WBRP and community partners gave out hundreds of bikes for free as part of the annual Walk-In, Bike Out event. But Baez says the program wasn’t necessarily sustainable -- “They were finding a lot of the bikes dumped or broken and seeing those same bikes again.”.
Program administrators decided to transition to a “community bike shop” model that not only puts bikes in the hands of residents but also teaches them to maintain the bikes for years to come.
Instead of offering bikes for free, the shop sells bikes at vastly reduced prices -- from $30-$80 for an adult bike -- with the opportunity for volunteers to work their way to ownership. For every hour spent helping clean, strip and restore bikes, volunteers earn $10 toward a bike of their own.
“It’s awesome because we have so many nice bikes come through here -- it just takes the right parts and getting them fixed,” Baez said. The bikes are largely donated, with bulk amounts delivered periodically from Bloomington Police. “Half of our basement is full of bikes that need to be fixed.”
Residents can also learn to repair and maintain their own bikes with the help of volunteer mechanics happy to share their knowledge.
“It’s cool to see the engagement with residents and how many people come in and shop for bikes or parts or just want to volunteer,” Baez said. “There’s a lot to learn from this new program that maybe some of our other programs can learn from.”
Already WBRP is working to open a workshop later this year as part of The Tool Library, the organization’s free tool loan program. Baez said the new building at least doubled the amount of space available to house tools, with recent grants expanding the variety of tools offered.
Baez said the workshop will give residents the opportunity to learn practical skills like building furniture with tools and plans available at The Tool Library.
After nearly seven months as WBRP project leader, Baez said he plans to spend the next six months evaluating the organization’s programs to make sure they’re helping West Side residents as best they can. It’s a difficult task given the WBRP’s unconventional nature.
“One of the coolest parts about this organization is it’s grassroots very much decentralized,” Baez explained. The organization began around 2008 as an intergovernmental initiative to revitalize West Bloomington’s historic neighborhoods. With no executive director and a volunteer board of directors, the majority of the organization is volunteer-driven -- in fact, Baez is only the third paid WBRP employee in the organization’s 10-year history.
“So many of those programs were formed from peoples’ passion,” Baez said. “I don’t think starting those programs was ever put through a system of, ‘Is this a good program for us?’ It just happened. An intelligence of its own directed that work.”
One thing Baez would like to see is the development of a program to address food access in West Bloomington, classified as a food desert because of a lack of available nutritious foods.
“For me, food is one of those things that everybody should have access to,” he said. “It’s one of those very basic things; how have we not figured that out?”
The WBRP already offers programs to help address the issue, including Veggie Oasis, where volunteers collect fresh produce nearing expiration from local grocery stores to distribute to residents every Saturday. It also offers plots at a community garden just west of Downtown for $25 and a seed library at its Washington Street offices.
Developing new programs can be difficult for any nonprofit, but with Baez, as the organization’s only paid employee through a City of Bloomington Community Development Block Grant, the WBRP especially will have to get creative.
“It’s challenging because you only have so much time and resources,” Baez said.
The new building has helped provide the organization with some financial security. With the third level renovated into an apartment, the WBRP has the reliable monthly income to help support its programs.
Baez hopes a new food program could help teach residents not only about eating healthy foods but growing them themselves.
“Growing food is one of those very time-intensive things,” he said. “You could probably in a few weeks teach somebody how to work on bikes or you could show somebody how to use a tool fairly quickly, but when it comes to growing food, there are so many different components. It just requires more time and energy.”
Visit the West Bloomington Revitalization Project website for more information on the organization and its programs.