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Community pulls out stops to save center

By Rick Catlin, Islander Reporter

Holmes Beach Commissioner David Zaccagnino, the city’s liaison to the Anna Maria Island Community Center, addresses 200-plus people June 4 at the “Save our Center” meeting called to discuss the center’s financial position. Islander Photo: Rick Catlin

Anna Maria Island Community Center executive director Dawn Stiles, left, and Manatee County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Paul Davis discuss the center’s financial situation. Islander Photo: Rick Catlin

With more than 200 people at the Anna Maria Island Community Center’s “Save our Center” meeting June 4, Scott Rudacille, chair of the center’s board of directors, was impressed.

The meeting was called by Rudacille and executive director Dawn Stiles to discuss the center’s financial crisis and to seek short- and long-term solutions. Stiles said the center has only about $60,000 in operating funds, and can’t remain open without a short-term infusion of cash.

Rudacille’s first question to the attendees was “Does the community want to keep the center operating, or not?”

“Yes” was the crowd’s reply. No one at the meeting suggested closing down or seeking outside help to run the center.

Rudacille then gave a brief history of “how we got here.”   He outlined the factors contributing to the center’s current financial position and asked the audience for input on how to keep the center operating while the board strives for a long-term plan for financial stability.

Major donors of the past are no longer contributing to the center, he said. Additionally, the center gala — Affaire to Remember — usually brings from $150,000-$200,000 into the treasury and has been the center’s major fundraising event. But this year’s projected — budgeted — revenue was down $60,000.

At the same time, the center’s policy of providing every child the opportunity to participate in a program resulted in nearly $400,000 worth of scholarships in 2013, Stiles said.

Rudacille said no child is turned away because he or she can’t afford a program. “But now, we are at a financial crisis.”

He said the nearly $4.5 million cost to build the center, which opened in 2008, is not the only drain on the center’s treasury.

But he did agree that the original target of $2.5 million for the center was off base.

Fundraising had peaked and then the recession hit, and after the contract was signed to build the center, the cost of construction sky-rocketed, Rudacille said. An extra $2 million in costs didn’t help the center’s financial position, but dwelling on past mistakes won’t solve the immediate problem.

“We are now in the hole and can’t continue to sustain these losses.”

The meeting was called to get ideas, not to point fingers. “We want to hear ideas for the future,” he said.

A long-term strategy for fundraising is needed, and major donors who have stopped giving need to see the center is worthy of continued donations. Rudacille also said the board has only seven members, but has room for 15.

He called on anyone with “dedication” to the center and its objectives to get on board with him.

In fact, one person stepped up after the meeting to offer $50,000 in matching donations through June.

In response to criticism from one audience member, Stiles said that coming from Maine to Florida, she did not bring a list of potential donors, and didn’t know who the major donors to the center were when she started last April.

Rudacille added that it is not Stiles’ job to fundraise, it is the board’s responsibility.

Now donations are needed to operate the center for at least another three months, to meet obligations to summer camp for kids.

And so Stiles can finalize an operating plan and implement new guidelines as the board embarks on major fundraising campaigns and a long-range plan for generating operating revenue.

Rudacille, however, said the community has options, including closing the center or turning it over to Manatee County, the Boys and Girls Clubs, the YMCA, or another organization.

The audience consensus was to keep the center operating by the community for the community.

But Rudacille advised that to do that is going to take a massive effort by the community. Along with donations, “volunteers with experience” are needed, he said.

“We need board members, people willing to volunteer their time and be dedicated to the center,” he said.

Holmes Beach Commissioner David Zaccagnino reminded the audience that being a board member is a volunteer job, and people do it because they believe the community center should be for the community.

Zaccagnino also presented a check for $10,000 to Stiles for the center from an anonymous donor. He said he’s been in contact with potential donors and he’s hopeful they and others will provide the funding to give the center its needed breathing space.

Stiles also asked anyone with “skills and talent to come help us.”

Audience members suggested looking at the volume of scholarships more closely, saying some families and adults obtain scholarships that may not be warranted, but Stiles said that matter has already been addressed.

Other suggestions included improving the website, better marketing of the center, and improving communications between the center and the community.

Caryn Hodge, marketing director for Ed Chiles’ trio of restaurants, said she is helping on a newly formed marketing committee.

During public comment, several people shouted questions from the audience. One man pointed the finger at Stiles, saying she was hired to raise money for the center and she’s not doing it. He also suggested that “maybe the staff does nothing.”

A number of people leapt to their feet to defend Stiles, saying she’s only been on the job 13 months, and was not hired as a fundraising expert, but to bring new programs and activities to the center, and to devise a new operating plan suited to today’s community.

Another person said the center needs to be run like a business, but Rudacille said the center is not a business. The community center is a nonprofit community service, providing recreational facilities, health and wellness activities and sports programs.

He did agree the center’s operating plan the past five years has “not been working.”

Rudacille ended the meeting, saying “I didn’t hear anyone say ‘No more Center,’ so let’s get going. Dawn didn’t create this mess, but we can all help solve it.”

With that, checkbooks came out and the community began the task of pulling together with donations to “Save our Center.”

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