Fears and rumors about the possible sale of the Weissbourd-Holmes Family Focus building collided at a Nov. 7 meeting about the future of the building, located at 2010 Dewey Ave.
Of the more than 150 concerned residents who packed the theater on the north end of the building, only a handful appeared to have had much advance knowledge that Family Focus, Inc., has plans to put the building up for sale. Of that handful, though, a few had a plan. A group is coalescing around the idea of purchasing the building. The plan, still in its formative stage, would involve community members in purchasing the building and maintaining it as a community center, with Family Focus as a major tenant.
But before the point near the end of the meeting when long-time Evanston resident Bennett Johnson gave voice to the plan, tempers ran high. Residents questioned the representatives of Family Focus, Inc., (called “Inc.”) accused them of bad faith, told stories of their emotional connections not just to Family Focus but to the building, and pleaded with them not to abandon their clients or the building, which serves as an anchor to the community.
Originally Foster School, the building was used for the magnet Martin Luther King Jr. Laboratory school from 1967 until 1979. After the building was closed as a school, several community organizations, including Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre and Mudlark Theater, found a home there.
Family Focus Evanston, also called Family Focus Our Place, was the first of the now seven Family Focus centers in the Chicago Area. Evanston resident Bernice Weissbourd, a scholar and educator in early childhood development, founded the program in 1976. Ten years later, after two temporary homes, shortly after School District 65 closed Foster School, Ms. Weissbourd and her husband, Bernard, purchased the building for $50,000 and donated it to Family Focus. (A story on Foster School can be found at http://evanstonroundtable.com/main.asp?SectionID=16&subsectionID=27&articleID=4954.)
Delores Holmes was appointed Executive Director; she served in that position for 27 years. Over the years, Family Focus expanded from serving pregnant and parenting teens to include programs for grandparents and after-school programs for students of all ages. In 2000, the building was renamed the Weissbourd-Holmes Family Focus building. Colette Allen is the current Center Director.
Purpose of the Meeting
Rose Johnson, president of the Family Focus Evanston Auxiliary Board and a retired District 65 teacher and former District 65 School Board member, facilitated the Nov. 7 meeting.
“The purpose of this meeting is to seek clarification of the future of Family Focus and the Weissbourd-Holmes building,” Ms. Johnson said. Several times she had to call for respectful behavior and discourse because of the passionate outbursts. Auxiliary Board member Benny Jones said, “We are looking at a way to save the services and save the building. Our ultimate goal is to make certain that the services don’t begin to suffer.”
Merri Ex, Executive Director of Family Focus, Inc., said conversations about the future of the building began about a year-and-a-half ago. Family Focus Evanston was the first Family Focus site, but now there are six other centers.
“I think there’s a lot of concern about this building. We’ve been blessed with this building; it means a lot to us. The building has been important to the community for 100 years. The problem that we have at Family Focus as an organization is funding. We are 70% funded by the State. … We have worked really hard to try to contain expenses, so Family Focus is concerned about its stability and sustainability. This building, we understand, is important … but it has problems. The second-floor bathroom is not ADA-compliant; there is asbestos in the floor tiles, and there is a 50-year old boiler.” She also said that only if the floor-tiles were to be disturbed would the asbestos pose a danger.
This is the only building Family Focus owns, and the rent from the 15 tenants does not cover the cost of maintaining the building, Ms. Ex said. “We’re in survival mode; we’re not in a position to raise funds for the building,” she said, “but we will continue services in Evanston.
Vaughn Gordy, Chair of the Family Focus, Inc., Board, said Family Focus receives funding to serve 17,000 people. “We can’t afford to put that at risk in terms of the liabilities that come with this building.”
Sharad Kapur, Family Focus, Inc., Treasurer, said, “We are committed to Evanston. …The Board has decided we want to have a presence here, but we can’t do it with this building. … We do not have any meaningful endowment fund. We are basically hand-to-mouth.”
Jerome Summers, a former District 65 School Board member, said, “It seems like for a million dollars we could keep the building. This is a safe place for us. … This is home for a lot of us, so make it easy for us to have this place – or the programming.”
Bruce King, who said he and other family members attended Foster School, said, “This is home to me. … We’ve lost our village. We’ve lost everything. We need to stand up and keep our village, because we don’t have anything [in the community].”
Carlis Sutton said, “This community has taken the brunt of all the transitions of Evanston over the years. Where are you going to house these programs? … Is there any way you can hire someone to gut and fix the building?”
Anne Sills said, “This is a nexus for a particular part of Evanston.” She suggested enlisting the aid of both School Districts.
Carol Babro said, “This is where black lives are saved.”
“What, if any, measures were taken to raise funding from the community?” Terri Campbell asked.
Joyce Hill, who said she was the first person at Family Focus and the one who named the building, said “You should have had an endowment. … You better find some money for us.”
“This is where our kids have a chance. You need to help us. Don’t give up on us just yet, because we’re still standing,” said Darlene Marshall.
Lonnie Wilson, who worked for Family Focus for several years, said, “This building is the last marker of an African American community that is 100 years old. I know the African American community can raise the money to buy this building,”
Mr. Jones said, “I can’t tell you the time Rose [Johnson] and I have spent taking this to the City and to Inc., trying to find a solution. Don’t think we’re not putting forth the effort.”
Ms. Holmes said, “The emotional piece of the building is a very important one, as is the service value. … School District 65 sold it because they did not want to tear out the asbestos, and the State of Illinois mandated that.” Addressing the Inc. representatives, she asked, “Is Inc. willing to work with the community to preserve the building? I think the community deserves an answer.”
Mr. Gordy said, “The answer is ‘Yes.’” He added that Inc. has invested more than $2 million in the building over the past 27 years. There is no mortgage on the building, he said, but there is an outstanding loan on the elevator.
“We are happy to take input for a buyer. We plan to provide services in Evanston and would be happy to provide services in this building. We just cannot afford the continued maintenance.”
Betty Ester, who said she has been volunteering at Family Focus for about two years, said everyone had to work together to find a solution.
Mr. Gordy said the Board would “welcome if a group or committee would coalesce” around saving the building.
Mr. Kapur asked Ms. Holmes and Ms. Ester “to put together four or five people. We would be glad to sit down with everyone.”
Ms. Ester told the RoundTable separately that she would be involved in resolving the issue but not in a major way.
Kotika Ferguson suggested that community members who were interested in saving the building get organized as quickly as possible.
“This building has significance for me,” said musician Albert Gibbs. “I played my first piano recital here on that stage. Foster School helped me achieve.
“I’m not rich; I’m cautiously poor. I pledge $1,000” toward saving the building.
Mr. Gibbs said he understood “the struggle for self to not be lost through decisions made [by people remote from the issue]. “Why didn’t you try thinking of us … for us to sit down with a common goal?”
Several other women told emotional stories about how Family Focus changed their lives when they were young and confused and feeling that they had nowhere to turn.
Plans to Purchase the Building
Bennett Johnson said the Evanston Minority Business Consortium has a solution. “The fact is that community ownership is more easily put together with a real estate investment trust – a REIT.”
In a separate interview with the RoundTable, Mr. Johnson said, “The value of the meeting was that it intimidated Inc. and gave us some time.”
Ms. Holmes said she found another value in the meeting. “Family Focus had to admit publicly that they aren’t going to move the programs out of the Fifth Ward.
They committed to holding off until a proposal, and now the Auxiliary [local Evanston] Board has the right of first refusal,” she said.
Of the proposed REIT, Mr. Johnson also said, “We have a concept and a plan: a real-estate investment trust. This means the community could buy in; that’s why it’s so important to buy our own property. … We have the expertise in our group, so the learning curve could be very short. … We just need an agreement on the part of the core people.”
Mr. Johnson said Ms. Johnson, Ms. Holmes, Fifth Ward Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, and Mr. Jones are members of the core group.
Ald. Rue Simmons, who could not attend the Nov. 7 meeting because of a work commitment, told the RoundTable that a “core group at the table” has been working on a plan for the future of the building for a few months. To the names Mr. Johnson gave, she added Kelley and Emile Cambry.
“It started with a phone call to [then] Alderman Holmes. Everything was being considered in terms of acquiring the building … and having Family Focus as an anchor tenant. We would also have a home for [present tenants] Cradle to Career, the YMCA [Head Start program], King’s Way Prep School, and Sugar in the Class.
“We just need a fiscal agent that would help us with this ambitious campaign,” Ald. Rue Simmons said. She said she understood the building had been appraised at $2.4 million and that needed repairs had been estimated as high as $1 million.
Ald. Rue Simmons said she had spoken with Ms. Ex and another Board member, who agreed that the Evanston group could make a presentation to the Family Focus, Inc. Board in December.
Ms. Holmes said saving the building has to involve the community. “If we want to keep it as a community center, then let’s keep it a community center. Let the community buy it.”
The building, Ald. Rue Simmons said, “really serves every generation here. It’s really a piece of our community.
“It is important for us to be united in this effort. I’m inspired by the Robert Crown fundraising effort. … I believe that now is a great time to bring this to the broad community,” Ald. Rue Simmons said.
Ms. Holmes said, “I feel it can be done.”