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Phoenix City Councilman Michael Nowakowski chairs the Latino Cultural Center ad hoc committee.EXPAND
Phoenix City Councilman Michael Nowakowski chairs the Latino Cultural Center ad hoc committee.
Miriam Wasser

Nowakowski Leaves Latino Community Out of Latest Latino Center Effort

Councilman Michael Nowakowski is forging ahead with the city’s latest Latino Cultural Center effort, even though few members of the Latino community are involved in the process.

That’s a concern for some community members, who worry that the committee could choose a location for the center as early as this summer, without getting enough community input.

“The community is not being considered,”  Lauren Kennedy says. She’s an artist and teacher who works with Latino families, including migrants and other community members whose primary language is Spanish. Kennedy spoke with Phoenix New Times after the last committee meeting, held at city hall on June 24.

“I’m not going to assume the worst, but this definitely feels suspicious,” Kennedy told New Times.

“Most people don’t even know these meetings are happening,” she says. And if they did, the meeting times and locations would make it difficult for them to attend.

It’s just the latest twist in a process that began in 2001. That’s when the city approved nearly $1.4 million in bond funding for renovating and expanding a downtown arts space called Museo Chicano, which closed before using those funds. Now, bond money will help start a new Latino Cultural Center.

The committee includes eight people chosen by City Council members, including some with ties to existing Latino organizations. CALA Alliance, which prefers the term Latinx, is among them. The committee is relying heavily on a 2017 report prepared for the city by a California-based consultant.

The committee is charged with finding a location and addressing other practical concerns, including fundraising, programming, and operations. It sunsets on June 30 next year, so they still have nearly a year to complete their work, including seeking City Council approval for their plans.

After letting the project languish for more than a decade, Nowakowski is determined to finally make it happen. And committee member Larry Ortega, a Phoenix artist and real estate developer, agrees. “I know how bureaucracy can slow things down,” Ortega says. “We don’t need more input; we need to move forward with one of these sites.”

But in the recent rush to produce results, Nowakowski is leaving out the very people the center should serve, according to Sam Gomez, who heads the Sagrado Galleria located in south Phoenix.

“It sounds like they’re really trying to push this decision, and they really don’t care about what people think,” Gomez says. “The process is really disconnected, and it’s all happening in a silo.”

During meetings, Nowakowski often points to community input gathered in 2017. But that doesn’t allay Gomez’s concerns. “They’re just checking the boxes so they can make a decision,” Gomez says. “We need to figure out how we can bring this conversation back out to the community.”

New Times reached out to Nowakowski last week, by the way. He still hasn't responded.

Most of the committee's work happens inside City Hall.EXPAND
Most of the committee's work happens inside City Hall.
Lynn Trimble

Kennedy would like to see committee meetings happening around the city, at times and locations that make it easier for community members to attend. “The location is not approachable,” she says. “The 12th floor of City Hall feels inaccessible and intimidating for a lot of people.”

Until recently, committee meetings weren’t posted where people with an interest in Latino arts and culture were likely to see them. Only people who routinely check public meeting notices for the City Council would have known they were taking place. All the meetings have been held during the day, excluding people who can’t miss work. And the city hasn't engaged Latino groups to help spread the word.

Joseph Benesh, who recently left Phoenix Center for the Arts to lead Arizona Citizens for the Arts, raised both issues during the public comment portion of the June 24 meeting. “What is the city doing to promote the fact that these meetings are happening?” he asked. “I’d like to see a larger push out to the community so we know they’re being invited in a larger way.” He's tangled with Nowakowski before, over one of the possible sites for the center.

Mitch Menchaca, who heads the Phoenix Office of Arts and Culture, agrees that more can be done. “We can do a better job of making sure we put it out there,” he replied to Benesh.

The office of arts and culture has several communication tools in place, but they’ve been underutilized for this effort. Until recently, only the 2017 information was posted on its website. And its last newsletter didn't mention the June 24 meeting.

Even so, the committee has already identified four possible locations, and arranged for the international architecture and design firm Gensler to create pro bono renderings of possible designs at each site, according to Christine Mackay, who heads the city's community and economic development department.

Ortega favors that approach, believing that choosing a site will help garner support for the project from Latino groups and others. “Most people can’t envision a blank canvas,” he says.

The sites are all city-owned and located in downtown Phoenix. Two have existing buildings that would need renovations and two are empty lots.

Mackay says the city will present Gensler's designs during the next meeting for the site and operations subcommittee, which is currently scheduled to take place at 2:30 p.m. on Tuesday, August 13, at Arizona Latino Arts & Cultural Center.

It's the only committee meeting taking place outside of City Hall, despite the fact that there are more than a dozen additional Latino arts and cultural organizations noted in the 2017 report.

More meetings at City Hall are scheduled for 1 p.m. on Tuesday, August 20, and Monday, September 23. Both were posted last week on the city’s arts and culture page and Menchaca’s office says they’ll share them on social media as well, in response to community member concerns expressed during the July 24 meeting.

Kennedy remains skeptical, and insists that more needs to be done.

“If you’re really passionate about the Latino Cultural Center, you’ll work to extend yourself for the people you serve,” Kennedy says. “Your job is to serve the community.”

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