The site of the former Oak Park Jimmy Prentis Morris Jewish Community Center sits vacant. A sign that reads “Coming Soon — The New Jimmy Prentis Morris Jewish Community Facility” is posted on the empty lot. But no one at Federation is able or willing to say just what “soon” means.
According to the last public update from Federation in August 2016 — which came a year after JPM was closed to cut a financial shortfall in the JCC budget — construction on the new facility was slated for spring 2017.
Since May, the JN has made multiple attempts to schedule an in-person interview with Federation officials to discuss the former JPM site. In late July, Federation President Larry Wolfe agreed to respond to an emailed list of questions.
Responding to a question about the delay in construction, Wolfe responded: “The planning process has been ongoing, which has included the creation of architectural designs for a facility that will offer space for community use as well as house a number of Jewish
“The process is taking longer than expected due to the complexity of securing tenants, which is critical to ensuring that the building serves the community without becoming a financial burden. We have not yet reached the point where we can announce a start date.”
Aaron Tobin, a leader of the Save the Oak Park JCC committee, who collected signatures and tried to raise funds to keep JPM open in 2015, said, “I don’t think we’re getting the whole story. There have been no announcements, no transparency. Perhaps they hope we’re just going to fizzle out and then they’ll sell the property to someone else.”
The Save the Oak Park JCC committee suggested to Federation they put a sign up on the vacant property. “It tears at our heart when we walk to shul and see that empty lot,” Tobin said.
Wolfe said in his emailed response: “We understand and sympathize with frustrations among local community members. While it has taken longer than anyone wanted, we are doing our best to share information when possible, without setting expectations that won’t come to fruition.”
Two public forums that collectively drew 750 people were held Jan. 12-13, 2015. At those forums, Federation leaders concluded that “decoupling JPM from the JCC” was the only solution to closing a budget gap of more than $1 million. However, Federation committed to keep the building Jewish, to continue programming and to preserve the Jimmy Prentis Morris name.
A week before JPM’s scheduled closure in August 2015, 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.
The concept was to make the building an outpost for social service agencies to serve the community, plus include meeting rooms for various purposes, a fitness area and a pool.
“The only requirement is that the new facility is self-sustaining,” Wolfe said at that meeting.
A year later, in August 2016, Federation told the JN it had to make the numbers work to cover the cost of the space, maintenance and upkeep. “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,” said Scott Kaufman, Federation CEO.
Federation leaders also said they had been unable to find a pool operator for the new facility, “but we’re still trying.”
The pool was considered 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, according to Tobin.
At that August 2016 meeting, Kaufman told the JN that if arrangements with the social service agencies and other possible tenants didn’t happen within the next six months, Federation planners and leaders would likely “have to go back to the drawing board.”
THE CURRENT SITUATION
According to Wolfe, Federation “remains committed to building a new JPM facility on the Taubman Campus and we are doing everything we can to make that possible. We will continue to pursue this with the hope that we can maintain a viable operation that will serve the community.”
According to Tobin, the former Oak Park JPM had three things that created community and brought people together: a pool, a place to eat and a workout facility. “What in the new facility will help to create community and bring people together?” he asked.
The JN emailed that question to Wolfe, who responded: “The designs include what will be a warm, contemporary community-use space. The building will also host a variety of on-going programs for our local Jewish agencies, including the JCC.
“Unfortunately, we know that health clubs are no longer viable draws for most JCCs, as very low-cost alternatives — such as Planet Fitness and other large entities — are available everywhere. This is a challenge for JCCs across the country.”
Regarding a pool, Wolfe said: “A number of local providers were approached … We learned that this was not financially viable for these operators, due to the fact that the building would need to remain closed on Saturday for Shabbat.”
Wolfe continued: “We are not planning to rent space to non-Jewish tenants. The tenants we are negotiating with are Jewish agencies and organizations, all of which have financial and logistical requirements. Our commitment is to maintain JPM as a Jewish facility, for use by the local Jewish community and which is financially self-sustaining.”
A former JPM employee who wishes to remain anonymous said the community’s frustrations are more toward Federation than the JCC. “I don’t think people are happy with how Federation has communicated since the news of the JPM closure first broke,” the employee said.
“There were community members who took every piece of bait that Federation threw at them. They hung on to the hope of a fitness center and a pool. I think Federation knew that would never happen and should have been upfront from the beginning. That would have been the honest thing to do. The community kind of felt duped.”
Tobin echoes those thoughts. “A lot of people in the community are coming back to me now and saying, ‘I told you so.’ They committed to us that there was going to be a pool and a small workout facility. Neither will happen. Those commitments have gone away.
“What is it going to be?” Tobin asked. “An office building with a few empty rooms for people to meet? One of the great things about JPM was it brought all sorts of people together — people who wouldn’t have gotten together anywhere else. Will this new facility do the same? We would be happy if it had a place for people to nosh and schmooze.”
Debbie Hitsky of Southfield said a Federation volunteer recently called her to ask for support for Federation’s 2017 Campaign. “I turned her down and offered the same explanation I’d given last year’s volunteer, first apologizing for venting and urging her to absolutely share my reasoning with everyone at Federation,” she wrote.
Her reasoning? JCC dollars don’t see their way to residents near the Oak Park/Southfield community.
“It’s summer, and it’s hot,” she said. “The JCC in West Bloomfield, ‘spared’ by the elimination of JPM in Oak Park, has three swimming pools. Jewish and non-Jewish children living west of Telegraph have day camps, nursery school, inline hockey and so much more to enjoy during the summer. Adults, including myself because I can drive 25 minutes from my Southfield home to the JCC, have fitness classes of every kind there.
“But what happened to the adults and children who used JPM? The adults, I can tell you, joined the Young Men’s Christian Association, Planet Fitness, Beverly Hills Racquet Club, and the like.
“In essence, they were cast away from the Jewish community. And, of course, many lost everything they had at JPM because they are elderly residents of the Jewish Senior Life apartments on what we used to call the ‘Jewish Community Campus.’
“They don’t have the wherewithal to drive to a gym elsewhere. There are a few vestigial classes that meet at Beth Shalom or the Mondry Building [on the campus], but what was a truly ‘Jewish’ community — children to seniors, Russian-speakers to Holocaust survivors, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or none-of-the-above — is denied by distance equal access to an agency funded with our dollars.”
The JN shared her concerns with Wolfe and asked why Oak Park community members should feel comfortable donating to the annual campaign.
He responded by email: “Annual Campaign dollars are essential for the community and fund critical social service agencies that serve the Oak Park area, including programs for seniors, families in crisis, the unemployed and other vulnerable Jewish individuals. Federation also support Jewish camps, BBYO and Campus Hillels, along with a number of Jewish day schools in the area and has recently invested in significant security upgrades to protect our community’s children.”
By Jackie Headapohl, Managing Editor