News And Politics

Funding problems force shut-down of local tech center

May 25, 2012, 7:57 a.m.

A sign posted to the window of CDTechLink announces its May 25 closure. (Credit: José Martinez/OnCentral)

The end of a digital era is nigh in South Los Angeles – at the corner of Central Avenue and 42nd Street, to be specific.

Friday marks the last day of services for the CDTechLink Center, a technological initiative that for nearly nine years provided Vernon Central residents with computer and Internet access and training.

The center fell under the auspices of CDTech, a nonprofit community economic development organization. In Vernon Central (roughly the 90011 zip code), computer and Internet access aren't a given, said Kristine Williams, CDTech's vice president for strategic initiatives.

"High-speed Internet access [in the area] is limited – it's on and off," she explained. "People who are stressed economically might be able to have service for a bit of the time, but that may be something that has to go as funds become tighter."

In 2007, CDTech received a grant, which it used to work toward a goal of getting 10 percent of Vernon Central's approximately 20,000 households connected and able to use technology. The organization ended up surpassing that, reaching about 16 percent.

"Generally, we just found a very large portion of the population who had very, very beginner-type skills," Williams said.

That led to a massive outreach campaign to try and bring more people up to speed with the ever-changing tide of technology. They found that kids could do things like turn a computer on and open up their games – but didn't know how to open files. Their parents were often even less knowledgeable.

Tech knowledge in the area "is still spotty and can be inconsistent without support," said Williams. "The need for access to broadband services is still great."

CDTechLink provides that access on the cheap – memberships cost a mere $5 per year, and a one-time use fee is $1. Folks who are in training programs get free access.

"The idea was if you bring capacity into a community, the community will take it wherever they want," said Williams.

A presence beyond the mere technological

The community certainly took advantage of the capacity Williams was talking about.

Patty Celidon, the center's technology and training director, manages the computer lab and organizes, plans and implements CDTechLink's training programs.

"This is a neglected community," said Celidon. "People don't have the advantage like we probably do of carrying a mobile phone or having a computer with Internet, so the need has been to be connected. Besides all the social service programs they need in their lives, what this program did for the community was provide an open-access computer lab."

That sets it apart from other computer labs in the area, which cost money or are members-only. There are the libraries, but they only have so many computers and come with more limitations and less training. CDTechLink was open to all.

At CDTechLink, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Celidon said, people would come in and build their resumé, apply to jobs and do research for their homework. Since many of the area's residents don't have credit cards, they'd bring cash to Celidon, who would help them find a computer and then charge it to her credit card. At one point, the center had a program that would provide qualifying residents with free Internet access at home through AT&T.

And a lot of times, it was the little things.

"People will come in and are so happy that they obtain an email, that they can have an email conversation with relatives in a different country," she said. "We teach them about Skype. People can see face-to-face now."

Celidon got her bachelor's degree in electrical engineering and, upon graduating, moved to San Diego to start a job with her new degree. Within six months, she'd quit, moved back to L.A. and began working toward her Master's in teaching. She wanted to work in a computer lab, and shortly after getting her second degree, started at CDTechLink.

"I'm going onto my seventh year," she said. "When I started, there was no programming. And I saw it grow. We created classes, opened it up to the public. The relationship with the community is great."

Which is why the center's services so often went beyond the technological – people would bring in letters or bills and ask one of the staff members or volunteers at CDTechLink to translate them. Celidon recalled looking over one patron's phone bill and seeing tons of unnecessary charges, then helping the person get rid of those charges.

"They were just so grateful," said Celidon, smiling. "Spending all these years here has made this my second home."

Which is why it's going to be so difficult for Celidon, and many others, to see it go.

The shutting down of CDTechLink

Benjamin Torres, president and CEO of CDTech, is frank about why CDTechLink is closing its doors.

"The sad situation is that the focus on the digital divide appears to have been a trend," he said. "Unfortunately, the agenda of development is many times not driven by the needs of the community but by where funders want to invest their money."

In other words, having a technology center that trains people in and provides access to computers and technology is "not something people are interested in". "People," in this case, meaning "funders."

In more concrete terms: The building in which the CDTechLink Center resides was recently sold by the city to Thomas Safron & Associates (TSA), a company that owns and manages thousands of properties in Southern California, most of them affordable housing rentals. When it came to negotiating a lease, TSA and CDTech couldn't come to a satisfactory agreement, and Torres didn't want to make a short-sighted decision to stay in a lease that he says probably would have resulted in more sustainability problems down the line.

Add that to the fact that one of the center's key partners, L.A. Trade Technical College, had to back out because of their own budgeting problems, and the aforementioned lack of interest in funding projects like CDTechLink, and things just didn't seem workable. So the center decided to move out.

"That's really why we had to shut down," said Torres. "There's not enough money to support it. We've made a major investment in that center for the last 10 years. It typically runs us over $200,000 a year to run that site." In its heyday, said Torres, CDTech was spending more than $330,000 a year for three straight years on the center.

Jordan Pynes is the president of Thomas Safron & Associates, Inc., the property management company for TSA. He didn't want CDTechLink to leave, calling its funding situation "unfortunate" and saying TSA is hoping to keep the space occupied.

"It's definitely a goal to keep it occupied, and [CDTech] is definitely our number-one choice to keep it occupied," he said. While CDTech's funding for the center is up in the air, Pynes added that he's told the nonprofit that if it can get its funding in order, TSA would like to keep them in the space, or maybe at a different, smaller property it owns nearby.

"It's our goal to keep them in," he said.

Torres, for his part, also said TSA didn't want CDTechLink to leave and doesn't hold a grudge because the two were unable to reach an agreement for the lease.

"They just wanted to protect their investment," he said. "They didn't mean it from a bad place. At the end of the day, CDTech just wanted it to be more affordable because of its funding situation."

Moving forward

Friday, May 25th, marks the center's last day of services and programs. CDTechLink needs to be moved out by June 11.

Betty Johnson, the receptionist at the center, said the center "means everything" to the community.

"They're familiar with it and I think it's been here too long to disappear. It could have been prevented as far as I can see," she said.

"It's very sad," she added. "It's too bad. This should not have happened."

Celidon said traffic in the center had been heavier since announcing that it was closing, but 24-year-old Kelani Faamafoe was the only one sitting at a computer around 11:30 a.m. on the day before the it closed.

"There aren't other places that really offer this," he said. He comes to the center to use the Internet, which he doesn't have access to at home. He said he was "stunned" to learn the center would be closing. "I don't even know where I'll use the Internet now."

Torres, who says Vernon Central "historically had no access to technology," isn't sure either. The idea was to move from basic technology training to using technology as a tool for economic development, and social media as a tool for leadership development – or, as Torres calls it, "community transformation." And they were ready to do that – until they lost their location.

So he's looking for a different space, and also looking into giving some equipment to other (smaller) labs in the area to help build them up. He's not sure where those avenues will lead, but he does know CDTech's commitment to Vernon Central remains strong.

"We're just going to have to be a little more mobile and creative about how we have our presence there," he said.

Over the next few weeks, he'll be in talks with community residents and partners to discuss "how to transition their relationship." He mentions that there have been calls for "last-second efforts" to save the center, but says "people fail to recognize how much it costs."

Right now, he's focused on the victories the center has had over the years, starting with a CDTechLink farewell party on June 6, the purpose for which he says is threefold: to celebrate the work they've done over their nearly nine years, to make sure people know CDTech is still committed to the area and to make sure there's a "transition hand-off" to some of the community's other organizations and partners.

"We're trying to figure out what to do so we don't lose momentum as much as possible," said Torres. He pointed to one product of that momentum in particular.

"You have now 9th graders at Jefferson High School and some charter schools that are expecting and demanding that the schools provide technology access and equipment for them to use and to be incorpotated into their education," he said. "That's a product of the work CDTechLink did."

Torres said the center developed an entire curriculum around career opportunities, and that the seeds CDTech has planted in the community have taken root. They just need to continue to be nourished, and Torres wants to figure out how to continue nourishing them.

"We have a very strong commitment to the area," he repeated. "We're not going anywhere."

CDTechLink's farewell party will take place Wednesday, June 6, from 4 to 6 p.m. at the CDTechLink Center, located at 4201 Central Avenue. Call (213) 763-2520 x227 with questions.

Stories nearby