Hundreds Rally to Save Mental Retardation Center

A rally at City Hall to save a local center that's home to almost 200 mentally disabled residents is the latest chapter in what has quickly become a hot button issue. As Houston Public Radio's Jack Williams reports, both sides, the city and The Center, now expect negotiations will help resolve the dispute.

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It wasn't hard to tell how the crowd on the steps of City Hall felt about the possible closure of The Center Serving Persons with Mental Retardation. A sea of residents, families and supporters with white t-shirts that read "Save Our Center" made it clear that they won't stand by while the city closes the campus that's been a fixture on West Dallas near River Oaks since 1963.

"I just can't imagine what will happen to these people who can't speak for themselves if this center closes. It will be a catastrophe."

Ann Keeshen's daughter Kathy has lived at the Center for the past 34 years.

"We are just so fortunate. There is not a place like this in the country and to discount what is going on there by asking them to move, this would be a big trauma in itself to take these people out of there that have lived there for so many years. There adjustment would be really, really altered."

The city has notified the center that it plans to sell the valuable property, a prime piece of real estate that's estimated to be worth more than $20 million. The Center signed a 99-year lease for the property back in 1963, a sweetheart $1 a year deal that the city says is both outdated and goes against the city charter. Allison Bailey has a daughter at the center and says Mayor Bill White's plan to sell the land is a bad idea.

"It's not even just their home, it's their whole way of life and their medical. It's their whole way of life and to change that and these kids don't change easily. I mean, it's traumatic to change from floor to floor. If we could compromise and figure out some way to let them continue on as they have for 43 years being a part of the Houston community, we're there for him. We just want him to hear us."

Center Executive Director Eva Aguirre says she's confident a compromise can be agreed on before the campus is forced to move or close.

"I have faith in the mayor. I have faith in city council. I have faith in our task force that it will work out both for the city and for our agency."

The city says it's unfair to taxpayers to have a non-profit use the valuable land without paying fair market price and that the original lease ignored rules that prohibited lease agreements longer than 30 years. City councilwoman Sue Lovell says she expects a compromise.

"Everybody needs to keep all options open and I know that the Lighthouse for the Blind next to them I think just signed a new agreement and a new lease that they seem to be very pleased with and so I expect would expect that there will be negotiations in which the city will be happy and the center will be happy."

The city has officially notified the center of it's plans to sell the property, but there has been no official timetable set yet.

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