Supporters seek solutions to keep Oak Park JCC open and viable.
One week after two public forums were held to elicit comments about the possible closing of the Jimmy Prentis Morris Jewish Community Center in Oak Park, close to 100 people gathered Monday evening for a grassroots effort to keep their JCC open.
JPM has been running a deficit of nearly $1 million for several years, and JCC and Jewish Federation leaders see closing it at the end of the fiscal year (May 31) as a part of a solution to the JCC’s longtime debt problem. The JCC also includes the much-larger JCC in West Bloomfield, which leaders say has an annual deficit of about $200,000. Both campuses are home to apartment buildings for seniors run by Jewish Senior Life.
Public forums held by JCC/Federation lay and professional leaders Jan. 12-13 drew a total of about 750 people. Leaders then said the facility would remain Jewish and programming would continue, but perhaps under a different entity than the JCC. At both sessions, passion for JPM and its need to serve the Jewish community surrounding it was keenly evident.
A grassroots group evolved from those forums with the mission of saving JPM. Hundreds of supporters already had signed on to Aaron Tobin’s Facebook page (Save the Oak Park JCC); other names were added to a clipboard belonging to Ron and Phyllis Aronson of Huntington Woods, who gathered contact information during the forums.
The result was this meeting at JPM.
“There’s a time to kvetch and a time to work,” Ron Aronson told the group. “Kvetching was last week. We are here to use the incredible ideas that came up last week. This is not the kind of thing the JCC and Federation would do, but that we can do. We begin the process tonight.”
People had plenty of questions and not so many concrete answers. They were not deterred, but determined to do what they could collectively to come up with solutions to keep JPM operating. Tobin and Aronson led the meeting, taking comments from the group and working hard to pinpoint areas where their suggestions might make a difference.
Getting a clear financial picture of what it takes to run JPM emerged as a major concern.
“We can’t even proceed because we have no financial information,” said Jack Zwick of Southfield, a certified public accountant who also suggested a forensic accounting of the information once it is obtained. “We have to look at the [Federation] allocation, at fixed costs. We don’t know this.”
John Klein of Oak Park said, “We need financial snapshots of what is spent and what is coming in … We need to know how much we need to spend to keep JPM going.”
Many in the room agreed. JCC board member Bubba Urdan said the JCC audit for the last two years is complete.
Late in 2013, inaccurate financial reports were discovered that overstated JCC revenues and understated liabilities, leading to hiring outside firm, Financial One Inc., to examine the JCC’s books. At the same time, turnaround expert Jim Issner was brought in as interim executive director.
After the meeting, Urdan said he spoke with Issner, who told him he welcomed a meeting to discuss the audits with the group’s financial subgroup.
Other concerns identified Monday by the group included membership, fundraising, marketing, customer service, cost-cutting measures, building maintenance, community outreach, revenue generation and children’s programming to reach a younger audience.
The group then divided into subgroups to brainstorm suggestions under each category, with the goal of coming up with concrete ideas to be presented to JCC/Federation leaders. After some time for discussion, each group reported its findings.
Suggestions included creating a more transparent dues structure that can be accessed online, fundraising on social media, reaching out to synagogues and agencies for support, increasing rental opportunities for JPM, improving the facility’s website and designing targeted marketing to attract more members.
The two-hour meeting ended with subgroup leaders tasked with turning in ideas to Aronson and Tobin. Another meeting to continue the work was set for 7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 26, at JPM.
“From my own vantage point and most in leadership, we salute a grassroots effort as long as it continues to be constructive,” said Matt Lester, chair of the JCC Oversight Committee. “It is certainly appropriate for the biggest stakeholders in that area to mobilize for the good of that facility. There were a lot of smart, dedicated people [at the forums].
“One thing they asked for, which was not unreasonable, was some time. On one hand, it’s entirely appropriate; it took many years, if not decades, for the problem to be fully realized. We have been at it for slightly over a year. It is not unreasonable to give some time, and we are open to working together.
“But we have to be pragmatic and realistic about what we are confronted with. This is not a small financial problem.”
– By Keri Guten Cohen, Story Development Editor
Highlights From Second JCC Public Forum
On Jan. 13, Jewish Community Center and Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit lay and professional leaders held a second public forum to elicit comments about the possible closing of the Jimmy Prentis Morris JCC in Oak Park. About 125 people attended.
Here are some highlights.
“We need to go back to the community and ask for support,” said Larry Schon of Oak Park. “When the pool and gym were built, the JCC had parlor meetings throughout community and people supported it. No one has asked since. We are not mega-donors, but we will give more help than you think.”
Aviva Gordon of Oak Park suggested that JPM consider closing a day or two a week or having shorter hours on slow days to save money. She also felt JPM could do a better job of renting space for private functions.
Dennis Nordmoe of Huntington Woods, executive director of Urban Neighborhood Initiatives that runs a community center in southwest Detroit, who is not Jewish, said, “I love it here. I’ve made many friends here, but sometimes I’m the only one here. This is a relatively Orthodox community — why do you need to be open on Saturday?”
At the first forum, Patrice Morris Phillips of West Bloomfield spoke about the importance of the JCC to her family. Her parents, Lester and Jewell Morris, gave a significant naming gift to the Oak Park JCC in memory of their son, Jimmy Prentis Morris, who died in a car accident at age 13 in 1965.
“My dad loved it here; he came here all the time,” she said. “The day he died he wanted pictures hung here of my brother. This was my parents’ life. On behalf of my family, I want to thank all of you for your support … And I want to thank [JPM Director] Leslee Magidson and her staff for a phenomenal job.”
Brian Siegel, immediate past JCC president, was part of the leadership panel at the forums and looked back at the process.
“We want to discuss all the great ideas that were offered and get a better handle on where the process is going to go from here,” he said. “We do have a greater understanding of the connection and passion people have for [JPM].
“The fundamental financial problems of the JCC still exist so that issue has not gone away. We are charged with balancing a budget that is still $1 million under water. We have to close that [gap]. We have a lot of good ideas.”
– Contributing Writer Barbara Lewis contributed to this report.