Booker T. Washington center nearer to survival

The historic Booker T. Washington Community Center, which closed for several months last year after running out of money, has restored limited operations and is negotiating a closer relationship with the city of Macon.

Originally located on Broadway and now in the Pleasant Hill neighborhood, the center has offered meeting space and educational opportunities to residents for 70 years.

The community center’s board has been meeting with City Council and Mayor Robert Reichert to discuss options for sustaining the center.

Tuesday the City Council’s Community Resources and Development Committee voted to support the idea of a collaboration between the city and the center.

The resolution, submitted by Councilwoman Elaine Lucas, was a substitute for an earlier draft in which she advocated the city taking over the center entirely. Lucas said the collaborative approach enjoyed more support from both the Booker T. Washington board and council members, and she’s happy as long as the center survives.

Andrew Blascovich, spokesman for Reichert, said the mayor basically proposed three options to the board of the Booker T. Washington Center.

The options included:

Ÿ Folding Booker T. Washington into the Macon-Bibb County Parks and Recreation Department, managing it as other city community centers;

Ÿ Selling the community center building back to the city and using the profits to boost the center’s income; or,

Ÿ Entering a contract with the city, much like the Douglass Theatre did. That would give the center an annual funding stream from the city but leave the existing nonprofit board to plan programming and raise money.

In a letter dated April 21, the Booker T. Washington board expressed support for the third option.

“The agreement could also entail collaborations between programs normally run at the city recreation facilities being run at (Booker T. Washington) and programs that (Booker T. Washington) normally directs being expanded to city recreation centers,” according to the letter, which was signed by board president Regina McDuffie. McDuffie is a former chief administrative officer of the city who now manages the Macon Centreplex.

The letter goes on to outline a potential funding split of 14 percent each for the city and Bibb County, 27 percent from fundraising and program fees and 45 percent from major granting agencies such as the United Way and Porter Foundation.

McDuffie did not return phone calls seeking comment on whether the board has also proposed this funding split proposal to Bibb.

United Way cut off funding to the center in 2006, as did the city, because of concerns about the center’s money management. The county withheld its funding for extended periods for several years awaiting financial audits from the center.

Last year, McDuffie said the center had decided not to pay for an audit. But Howard Scott said this week that the board decided an audit was worth the money because it would enable the center to apply for additional grants such as some federal stimulus funding for youth programs.

Scott was director of Booker T. Washington for 30 years before retiring in December. He said he has continued to act as a consultant for free, helping the board develop and implement a sustainability plan for the center.

Scott said the board is likely to begin a search for a new director within the next 30 days.

Even without a director, the center has secured grant funding, as well as $22,000 from the city, to cover its annual summer day camp, Scott said. The camp costs about $94,000 of the center’s $175,000 budget and is by far the largest portion of the services the center currently provides, he said.

Scott said he thinks about $350,000 a year is needed for the center to provide quality, meaningful services.

Toward that end, the center’s board has held several retreats and reorganized its fundraising, Scott said. Fundraisers have been spread across the calendar year, with the annual golf tournament moved to September, to make the center’s income stream less sporadic. That, combined with the holdup of a $10,000 grant from the city, led to the closure last year.

“The golf tournament won’t be enough to get us through the fall by itself, but it will be enough to pay for staff to work on fundraising,” Scott said.

Part of the sustainability plan involves ushering in new leadership, with a new director and many new board members, Scott said.

“That board needs to be strengthened and developed, making sure new members understand their fundraising responsibilities,” Lucas said.

Three or four new board members have been appointed recently, Scott said.

Board members also signed affidavits promising to raise or donate $2,000 each year, he said.

The center has been limitedly open this year, available for meetings and offering a tutorial program on Saturday mornings, Scott said. The city’s infusion of $15,000 also paid for a winter camp during Christmas break, he said.

Scott said the center will survey its users and Pleasant Hill residents this summer to learn what needs are greatest. It will redesign programming based on the responses, he said.

Booker T. Washington leaders may seek help with grant writing from the city and the Middle Georgia Regional Development Center, and the city might be able to offer help with bookkeeping, Scott said.

Scott argues that Booker T. Washington is still desperately needed in Pleasant Hill, particularly as a safe haven for youths.

“Kids still come and meet in the back of the building when we’re closed, but it’s very unorganized,” he said. “Gangs are the ones providing the structure now.”

Information from The Telegraph’s archives was used in this report.