Just a week before the one-year anniversary of the closing of the Jimmy Prentis Morris (JPM) Jewish Community Center building in Oak Park came word that demolition of the building will happen this fall, after the High Holidays.
“It’s obviously taken a lot longer than anyone thought to move forward with a new building,” said Larry Wolfe, president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, at an Aug. 24 combined meeting of Federation and the United Jewish Foundation (UJF), Federation’s real estate arm, which owns the JPM building.
“We’re not happy about the year — it’s not fair,” he said, “but we can see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
This is the first public statement made by Federation or the UJF about the fate of the physical building since it closed Aug. 31, 2015.
A week before JPM closed last year, Wolfe and Federation CEO Scott Kaufman told 250 members of the Save the Oak Park JCC committee that an anonymous donor had stepped forward, pledging to replace the current JPM building with a state-of-the-art, energy-efficient building.
A concept for the new building, which will be smaller at 25,000-40,000 square feet rather than 50,000 square feet, was to make it an outpost for social service agencies to serve the community, plus include meeting rooms for various purposes, a fitness area and a pool.
While no longer part of the JCC, the new building will be managed by UJF’s property management company, as are other properties owned by UJF.
At two public forums that collectively drew 750 people on Jan. 12-13, 2015, Federation committed to keep the building Jewish, to continue programming and to preserve the Jimmy Prentis Morris name.
The anonymous donor committed to pay for all physical aspects of the new project, including teardown, engineering and architectural plans, construction and allied costs, such as landscaping. Another anonymous donor emerged later, pledging $50,000 annually to help with operations.
“The donor is 100 percent committed to tear down the building and build a new one customized to the needs of the local community,” Wolfe said at the recent board meeting. “The only requirement is that the new facility is self-sustaining.”
That requirement has not changed. One year ago, in August 2015, Kaufman said in a JN story that the expectation of the new donor is for JPM to break even financially.
“We are still working very hard and moving forward to come up with a new facility that’s sustainable,” Kaufman said two weeks ago at a meeting with the JN. “The donor’s big concern, which is shared by our leadership, is that we can’t be a drain on community resources — it has to be sustainable. We’re trying to be very careful that whatever we do has a high rate of sustainability.”
JPM was closed to help the JCC recover from longtime financial woes — revealed in a 2014 audit after an accounting crisis the year before — that amounted to a $6 million deficit. JPM itself had an annual deficit of $885,000, which was a net savings to the JCC’s bottom line. The JCC still is operating at a loss, but the gap is closing. (See story, page 14.)
Still, the cost to maintain the current JPM building has been about $10,000 a month, Kaufman said. This includes utilities, keeping water in the pool and circulating, grounds maintenance and partial cost of security for the campus, which also is home to Jewish Senior Life apartment buildings and the Mondry Building.
Tearing down the old building would eliminate the majority of the monthly cost and would buy more time for pieces of the puzzle for a financially sustainable new building to fall into place.
Jim Gustafson, Federation director of real estate services, said the teardown would take 45-60 days. Options include a total teardown of the building or a partial teardown that would leave a shell standing to protect some systems, like the boiler, that have been deemed reusable. The teardown will be done this fall before winter arrives.
Gustafson said either plan includes demolition of the swimming pool, which was being drained last week. An analysis showed some elements of the pool were old and outdated and that a new state-of-the-art pool would be more cost-efficient.
The pool was one of the most important elements of the Oak Park JCC, especially to the surrounding Orthodox community because it was available to men and women at separate times.
“[We’ve spent] many months talking to community leaders and those who run pools — this has been an ongoing process,” Wolfe said.
He indicated that for-profit pool operators they spoke with were able to handle the rent to support a new, more-efficient pool and make it financially feasible, but they did not want to be closed on Shabbat and Jewish holidays.
“The pool is very important to segments of the community, and we’re still working hard on it,” Kaufman said. “We are not promising a pool, but it’s still in process, and we can design the building in a way that it can be added later.
“A pool is a very expensive thing to operate, and we don’t want to spend a donor’s money and then three years later have to close it [because it’s not sustainable],” Kaufman said. “That’s the worst thing for donor relations and for the neighborhood.
“People in the community, with help from Federation, are working hard to find a sustainable model for the pool. At this time, we haven’t crossed the finish line.”
Lack Of Communication
Federation has given no official updates on JPM in a year, despite repeated requests for information from the JN, leaders of the Save the Oak Park JCC committee, donors and concerned community members. The lack of communication has frustrated community members.
“One year has passed since Federation President Larry Wolfe and CEO Scott Kaufman announced, at a meeting of Save the Oak Park JCC, that the JPM building would be reconstructed into a ‘communal center’ that would contain a fitness center, a swimming pool and operations of several Jewish community organizations,” said Ron Aronson of Huntington Woods, a leader of the Save the Oak Park JCC group, on Aug. 19, after meeting with Federation staffers about JPM.
“There were no announcements or visible activity at the building, not even a sign saying ‘watch this space,’” he said. “The community was completely in the dark about what was happening, if anything. We understand that rebuilding or renovation is a complicated and sometimes lengthy process, but there is simply no excuse for Federation failing to keep the community informed.”
Aaron Tobin, another Save the Oak Park JCC leader, said, “They’ve done nothing. It’s heartbreaking to see [JPM] empty. I walk through the parking lot every week to my shul. It’s painful to see no construction.
“I have asked the Federation many times to be forthcoming and was promised an update, but no update came. A lot of people in the community are coming back to me now and saying, ‘I told you so.’
“Closure of the JPM has had a horrible impact,” Tobin said. “The Jewish heart is aching in this part of the community. The JCC was unique. This is far more than the loss of a gym, a swimming pool and a restaurant. People from different backgrounds shared a common place here, coming together as a community. There’s been the loss of a sense of community that you can’t put a value on.”
Patti Morris Phillips of West Bloomfield, sister of Jimmy Prentis Morris, who was killed in a 1965 car accident at age 13 with his cousin Wally Straus, age 14, has a personal stake in the building, which, along with the gym, are named for her brother. The social hall is named for her grandparents, Anna and Meyer Prentis; and the recreational wing is named for her cousin, Wally.
“I am surprised we haven’t heard for a year,” said Phillips, a Federation board member present at last week’s meeting. As a donor through her family’s foundation, she has been asking for updates.
“They keep saying they are working on it; that there’s a lot involved; and that it’s not as easy as they thought. I am very hopeful. I’m glad it’s going forward, and I’m glad the donor stayed with it. I’m also glad they are keeping the name.”
Marcia Leibson of Southfield, a member of the Save the Oak Park JCC committee, said, “People want — and have a right — to know what is happening and when.”
When Federation leaders met with the JN, they expressed their own frustration.
“There’s a perception that nothing is happening — which we understand — but that’s not accurate,” said Todd Krieger, Federation’s associate planning director.
“There was nothing concrete to report,” Kaufman said. “This is a difficult challenge and many people are working very hard to find the best, most sustainable solution that will benefit the local community for many years to come. It’s complex and we want to make sure we get it right.”
Speaking of JPM becoming an outpost for Jewish social service agencies, Kaufman said, “We thought, and hoped, it would go much faster, but we need to make sure the agencies interested in taking space are able to succeed in that space.
“I know the JCC would like some space, but they are still digging out of their financial situation. Can they afford it?”
Kaufman emphasized that Federation wants to make the numbers work to cover the cost of the space, maintenance and upkeep. Sustainability is key; no one is making a profit, he said.
“In the absence of a concrete thing, conspiracy theories fill vacuums — it’s true in everything if you don’t communicate enough. We know that. I think we go back to our track record. Our job is to take care of the community and its future and our mission — and that’s what we do.
“We are putting real time and sweat equity into this one, along with hundreds of other challenges we have,” Kaufman said. “We’ll need to be patient with people thinking what they are going to think until something happens.
“We are just as eager as they are to see progress at JPM. We’re working toward a long-term solution, and it’s critical we do this right so the new facility will be viable far into the future.”
However, Kaufman said in his meeting with the JN, if arrangements with the social service agencies and other possible tenants don’t happen within the next six months, Federation planners and leaders would likely “have to go back to the drawing board.”
By Keri Guten Cohen, Story Development Editor
Contributing Writer Esther Allweiss Ingber contributed to this story.