Saving JPM?

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Public forum elicits ideas, grassroots support for JCC.

A public forum drew a huge crowd to discuss ways to keep the JCC in Oak Park open.

Faced with the prospect of shuttering the Jimmy Prentis Morris Jewish Community Center in Oak Park, which has run a deficit of $800,000 to $1 million annually for several years, as a solution to the JCC’s long-standing debt problem, leaders from the JCC and Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit held a public forum Jan. 12 to gather community input and suggestions.

An outpouring of grassroots support for JPM drew about 600 people, filling the JPM gym to overflowing. Some people were turned away by police because of fire safety regulations; another meeting was set for Tuesday evening.

Community leader Dr. Conrad Giles served as moderator and set the tone for the discussion that ensued for three hours.

“We are here to listen to you,” he said. “None of us hoped to have a meeting like this. It is so emotion-laden, but this is the right time and place to have this discussion.”

Community leader Dr. Conrad Giles served as moderator and set the tone for the discussion that ensued for three hours.

“We are here to listen to you,” he said. “None of us hoped to have a meeting like this. It is so emotion-laden, but this is the right time and place to have this discussion.”

Financially it’s the right time because without some relief for the JCC’s debt, both JCC buildings might have to close, said Federation CEO Scott Kaufman. Both JCC buildings need repair and maintenance that one leader estimated could cost up to $30 million.

Scott Kaufman

JPM was built in 1956 and West Bloomfield opened in 1976. Each has its own issues, leaders said, and closing JPM this May 31 will not fix all of the JCC’s ongoing debt problems.

The JCC’s financial woes came to light in fall 2013 when lay and professional leaders learned the Center’s controller had produced inaccurate financial reports that overstated revenues and understated liabilities. A Financial Oversight Committee was formed to assess the JCC’s financial condition and oversee its operations.

The committee hired an outside firm, Financial One Inc., to examine the JCC’s books over the past several years, and brought turnaround expert Jim Issner on board as interim executive director. In late spring 2014, Issner and Financial One reported the JCC had a deficit of approximately $6 million.

During 2014, Federation provided about $4 million (in addition to the JCC’s $1.5 million annual allocation) to the JCC to pay off vendors and reduce the deficit to about $2.6 million. Fortunately, last year’s successful Maccabbi Games (generating around $800,000 in revenue) and summer camp program have put the JCC on track to break even operationally for the 2014/2015 fiscal year ending May 31.

Federation already has committed 10 percent of its emergency community reserves to aid the JCC, “and, at some point, it becomes irresponsible” to do more, Federation CEO Scott Kaufman told the crowd.

And because of the JCC’s long-standing inability to live within its budget, major donors were not willing to invest in a “black hole,” said Brian Siegel, JCC executive committee chair.

Panel
Federation/JCC leaders: Jim Issner, Florine Mark, Brian Siegel, Scott Kaufman and Matt Lester.

Leaders concluded that “decoupling JPM from the JCC” may be the only solution to closing a budget gap of $1 million-1.2 million, but first wanted to hear suggestions from community members.

At several points, various leaders reiterated that no one wants to close JPM and that the decision had not been made to do so.

Kaufman and other leaders also stressed that people in communities surrounding JPM are important to Federation.

JPM draws a diverse population — seniors from Jewish Senior Life apartments on campus, older Russian immigrants living nearby, a younger Jewish generation settling into Detroit’s older suburbs and Jews of all streams, including the Orthodox who enjoy separate fitness and swimming times that respect Jewish modesty laws.

JPM has 1,200 member units and 99 employees; the West Bloomfield JCC has 2,500 member units.

“Since first grade, I have lived in this neighborhood,” said Kaufman of Huntington Woods. “This community is a high priority for our Federation. It is a strong and growing community and not in decline.”

 

Public Comment
Before turning to people at two microphones ready to comment, Oak Park Mayor Marian McClellan spoke. “This building has been a cherished community asset. We have faith in what you will come up with for us. The city stands ready to do what it can to help this building and the Jewish Community Center.”

Jim Issner

More than 25 people offered public comment, waiting patiently for their two minutes to talk. All opposed closing JPM. Some had suggestions; others were critical and challenging; some merely spoke passionately about what the Oak Park JCC means to them.

Aaron Tobin of Oak Park started an online petition to save JPM that drew 650 names.

“There’s a haimishe attitude at JPM,” he said. “All Jews get along here. It’s like family. This is our gathering spot; it’s more than a building.”

Jordan Wolfe, who helped develop CommunityNEXT (precursor to Federation’s NEXTGen division), said that eight out of 10 young people who move back to Detroit will settle in the Woodward corridor near JPM. “That’s the level of importance of this location,” he said, adding that JPM needs upgrading to attract this next generation.

Others were more critical of Federation and JCC leaders.

Pearlena Bodzin of West Bloomfield asked, “Why should people here be punished for the mistakes of JCC people?”

A man asked, “Where was the board when all this was happening?”

Alan Hitsky of Southfield asked how much could be saved if the Max M. Fisher Building on Telegraph in Bloomfield Township was sold and its offices were moved to JPM?

Another person had read a JN story about plans for a Partners Detroit building to be built in Royal Oak for young adults and asked why JPM couldn’t be the place instead.

More than 650 people attended the forum.

Paul Levine complained there was no marketing for JPM and said leaders should try to grow membership before closing the Oak Park JCC. He also suggested “this meeting should be held in West Bloomfied, too.”

Rivka Schochet of West Bloomfield said she drives to JPM because it offers gender-specific swim times and exercise classes — something she can’t find anywhere else, including at the West Bloomfield facility.

“We want the privacy this JCC provides,” Schochet said. “This is a unique facility. This is a Jewish community center. This is what has to remain.”

Ruth Williams, who works at JPM, said, “We need many people to be little angels with money, passion and knowledge.” She presented a check for $1,000 to Florine Mark, JCC president, who grew tearful and said, “We need to save this building.”

At the end of the meeting, there was a sense that a grassroots effort could grow and preserve JPM. Matt Lester, chair of the JCC Oversight Committee, went into the crowd collecting names of those interested in helping.

“It was a good meeting,” said Marcy Feldman, who was part of a group that raised funds to add a pool and fitness club at JPM. “They really listened, and they saw the energy and passion and want to be engaged in doing something together. I feel encouraged.”

 

Programming
Federation/JCC leaders say current programming would continue at other venues or at the JPM building under different control. Only the fitness club and pool would be affected.

“We’re running 40 programs at JPM; every single program has been reviewed,” Brian Siegel told the JN. “The JCC Futures Committee, headed by Rob Lippitt, ranked programs for financial and mission impact.

“The conclusion was that none of the programs lose more than a few thousand dollars. Shutting down all of the programs would only save $50,000 and we believe that money is being well-spent in the community.”

Issner told the JN, “We are not walking away from the Oak Park constituency. All of the funding for that programming continues. It could just be delivered at one of the many other buildings in that area, like Congregation Shaarey Zedek, for example, or maybe even out of the JPM building itself.”

Kaufman says the building will stay Jewish and serve the community.

“There’s been some interest among a number of entities to take some or all of it — or portions of the programming — and maybe reclaim some of the old uses with just a different name on the door,” he told the JN.

At press time, he was not at liberty to discuss potential partners for the building.

“The challenge for us is how to provide quality programming in the neighborhood at a price the community can live with and do it in a way that is high-quality and cost-effective. We’re not there yet.”

 

By Keri Guten Cohen, Story Development Editor. Contributing Writers Julie Edgar and Esther Allweiss Ingber added to this story.

JPM entrance-Dsachs

Historic Timeline:  JPM, Oak Park

• 1931: First JCC in Detroit at Woodward and Holbrook.
• 1956: Oak Park JCC opens.
• 1961, June: Serious controversy after JCC board votes to be open on Shabbat, including health facilities.
• 1973, Ground-breaking for JCC in West Bloomfield.
• 1974: Oak Park JCC building was renamed for Jimmy Prentis Morris, son of Jewell and Lester Morris, who died in a car accident at age 13.
• 1989: JCC board study for enhancing the  Oak Park JCC building recommends expansion.
• 1992: Story by Arthur Horwitz, then-associate JN publisher, saying “JPM’s Future Still Uncertain.”
• 1994: First budget deficit for both JCCs.
• 1995, January: First occurrence of financial difficulties at both JCC campuses; library is closed, but reopens in May.
• 1995, October: JCC board votes to open centers to gentiles; the last JCC in America to abandon Jews-only policy.
• 1996: Federation funds JPM renovations, adding a pool and gym.
• 1999: Budget issues again, JCC Oak Park eliminates day care and toddler services.
• 2001: Budget problems again at both campuses, forcing layoffs and program cuts.
• 2001: 75th anniversary of JCC, combined campuses.
• 2003: Budget issues continue.
• 2014, January: Jewish Fund and Federation boards approve a $950,000 disbursement from the general fund to keep JCC afloat amid news its financials had been misrepresented. Another $800,000 comes in late February.
• 2015: JCC/Federation hold meetings to discuss closing JPM.

By Mike Smith, DJN Archivist

Save Or Shutter?

How other JCCs have coped with major financial woes.

As has happened in other cities that have either shut down or cut services at their JCCs, supporters may find a way to raise the money to keep the Oak Park Jewish Community Center open, perhaps with a different mission and even a completely new ownership structure.

Many communities throughout the country have closed their JCCs over the past 20 years because of dwindling membership and debt.

Some, like the Silverlake Independent JCC and the Westside JCC in Los Angeles, saved themselves after nearly being shuttered in the early 2000s. Others, like the Mayfield JCC in Cleveland closed for good in 2004. Boston shut down its Striar JCC in 2009, turning over the operation of its fitness and aquatic center to a YMCA.

The Westside JCC, which is quasi-independent (it relies on the Federation for some funding but is not affiliated with the JCC movement), kept only its preschool open after the former Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles spun off the aging center. Then, community leaders got together and launched a capital campaign that raised $4.5 million in about a year, enabling it to do much-needed renovations.

“If the real estate is decrepit and hasn’t been adequately maintained, it’s hard to compete in the marketplace,” said Executive Director Michael Kaminsky. Reopening its aquatic center with the backing of Olympic swimming champ Lenny Krayzelburg, whose swim schools also operate in the Oak Park and West Bloomfield JCCs, “helped us turn a corner,” he said. “Then we grew more programming.”

Other communities don’t rely on a single building at all; so-called JCCs “without walls” offer programming throughout their communities.

“You have to be careful not to look at a JCC as a building. A JCC is a community-building institution that is there to enrich Jewish life,” says Allan Finkelstein, executive director of the New York-based JCC Association, the umbrella organization for approximately 350 JCCs in North America. “JCC services don’t necessarily mean a building; there are all kinds of JCCs without walls and JCCs with buildings and services at all kinds of outposts.”

Baltimore’s JCC is a good example. It supports two thriving buildings and reaches out to young adults with programming all over the city — in breweries (a Chanukah “Brewhaha”), at pre-Shabbat happy hours and even in a tattoo parlor, where participants learned about Jewish law regarding tattoos while they got fake ones.

“We meet young adults where they’re at,” says Barak Hermann, president of the Baltimore JCC, which also rented a storefront near Baltimore Inner Harbor for a parenting center geared to young Jewish families who’ve elected to stay in the city.

Tapping into the zeitgeist is going to be a critical component of strengthening Metro Detroit’s JCC, which revealed last year that it was hamstrung by a debt of $6 million debt.

“There’s a younger, vibrant Jewish community growing in Detroit; we ought to look for opportunities for programming there without stepping on the toes of other agencies like synagogues and Federation,” says Jim Issner, the JCC’s interim executive director.

The JCC has budgeted money for the next fiscal year to continue the Oak Park JCC’s senior programming, possible at different locations.

By Julie Edgar, Special to the Jewish News

 

Arnold Waxman
Arnold Waxman 01.17.2015

Regarding the Oak Park jewish center closing. the jewish community should be ashamed of themselves.The millions of dollars they donate to charities around the world are gone to who knows where. They should think twice before they write their check. I am not affiliated with the JCC nor a member.If I could it's the first place my money would go.