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Can Neighborhood House get its act together?
City funding for the community center hangs in the balance
Johnson: Assuming leadership of the center has been challenging for the board. MacCrimmon says the center is in a 'pivotal period.'
Johnson: Assuming leadership of the center has been challenging for the board. MacCrimmon says the center is in a 'pivotal period.'

In a basement room of the Neighborhood House Community Center, a small board of directors squared off with neighborhood residents in late January. As board members struggled to work through their agenda, stragglers interrupted the proceedings to raise concerns about the future of the center. The constant pounding of Japanese drums from another room added to the tension.

"This feels like we are being bombarded," said Stephanie Johnson, a board member since 2009, who works as the community relations coordinator for St. Mary's Hospital.

Johnson was elected board secretary in 2013, but now serves as the acting president of the four-member board. The elected president resigned last April, and vice president Craig Engstrom followed suit after the contentious January meeting.

With a dwindling board of directors and unhappy neighbors, Neighborhood House Community Center has a few short months to regroup or risk losing its city funding. Neighbors argue that the center offers little in terms of programming and that they have little representation and say on the board.

The board members, meanwhile, have been struggling to set up and follow protocols at meetings they say have been co-opted by members of the community.

Because of past debt and poor management, the city is requiring that the center submit a strategic plan in order to secure its annual $50,000 in funding for operations. But with current conflicts between the board and neighbors, it is proving a difficult task to complete on time.

"We're in a really pivotal period," says Kate MacCrimmon, who served as interim director of the center in early 2011 and is now a member of the Friends of Neighborhood House Community Center, a group of local community members and business owners invested in the center's future.

The city of Madison has long valued the role of neighborhood centers in the community.

Jim O'Keefe, community development director, says they serve as focal points that build a "sense of neighborhood."

"They're places where community comes together," says O'Keefe. "They increasingly function as providers of a whole range of services from youth programming and senior service... [to] places for neighborhood residents to gather and hold meetings."

While some community centers serve a narrow constituency, others, like Neighborhood House, O'Keefe says, "transcend the neighborhood boundaries" by opening the space to other groups and organizations.

Neighborhood House was founded in 1916 to serve the Italians, Jews and African Americans who settled in the area. The center is now located at 29 S. Mills St., in a 1960s-era building that is "used up," admits Dan Foley, executive director of the center.

When Foley was hired in fall 2011, the center was already in debt. The board was experiencing instability brought on by a few years of poor management, says Johnson. The board assumed leadership of the center, which Johnson says proved challenging.

Foley and the board worked to stabilize fundraising and revenue, and the center paid off its debt in 2012.

"We've built a lot of really positive momentum," says Foley.

When Foley started, he and the board also began collecting rent from groups that regularly use space in the center for their own activities.

But the Friends of Neighborhood House say there is too little activity at the center that involves and serves folks who live in the surrounding neighborhood.

"We don't care about the politics," Bobby Shapiro, the co-owner of Zuzu Café, said at the January board meeting. "Those in the neighborhood just want programs.... Since I've lived in the neighborhood [10 years], it's done very little."

One thing neighbors would like to see revived is a food pantry, which closed in the summer of 2011.

MacCrimmon told the board that she knows of many individuals and organizations that would be willing to donate to support the pantry.

Foley says the center stopped all programming in 2010 and in 2011 only offered a volunteer-run summer camp. The center now employs a part-time program manager, who recently developed a mentoring program for 23 children. The center hosts movie nights as well.

It will take additional effort get the food pantry up and running, says Foley. In the past, the pantry cost the center money because much of the food was purchased, he says. The volunteer who worked full time suffered an injury from a car accident and has not been replaced. Foley says the center needs a space with better temperature controls, and possibly a new committee to support the project, before it can move forward with the food pantry.

Trust issues between the board and friends group are apparent. And the two sides appear at times to be working at cross-purposes.

The board will soon begin working with a pro-bono outside facilitator who has volunteered to help it move through the strategic plan process, says Johnson.

But the Friends group is now hosting its own meetings to seek community input about the center's future.

Neighborhood residents say they have tried in vain to join the board.

At the January meeting, two community members hoped to be considered for seats, but the board declined to act, saying it planned to vote on a new recruitment protocol. When the candidates learned they would have to reapply for board membership, one board member, Clarissa Pierson, expressed her displeasure.

"This doesn't feel right to me. It feels sneaky," she said.

"Why aren't there more community representatives being voted onto the board?" MacCrimmon asked the board during the same meeting.

Foley and Johnson agree with MacCrimmon that it's important to expand the board. Foley would like to see representatives from the neighborhood, outside groups that use the center, and other people from throughout the city who can bring expertise such as fundraising or marketing skills.

"This next city application [for funding] is a pretty important application," said Foley. "So the stronger our board is, the quicker we get our board up and running and strengthening it, the better."

Foley hopes the warring factions can find a way to work together toward their mutual goal.

"I think they all want what's best for Neighborhood House," he says. "Maybe [they have] different ways of getting there."

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