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SGN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: LGBT Community Center admits financial woes, uncertain future for its programs
SGN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: LGBT Community Center admits financial woes, uncertain future for its programs
"At what point do you fire off the flare? & I think it is fair to say mistakes were made," says Center Co-President Breanna Anderson.

by Robert Raketty - SGN Staff Writer

Seattle's LGBT Community Center will likely close its doors at its current 5,000-6,000 square foot location at 1115 East Pike St. by the end of the year. The current location has been a popular meeting place for the region's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community and a lifeline for newcomers seeking information as well as community access, gallery space and meeting areas.

In an exclusive interview with SGN staff, Board Co-President Breanna Anderson said the Center's financial situation, including debts over $30,000, have required the small nonprofit to curtail expenses. Anderson added that conversations with the landlord regarding her future plans for the site, future reconstruction plans for the existing site and rising rents in the Pike/Pine corridor were also contributing factors.

"The best way to make money is to save money," she says.

The Center is currently looking at several of options, including a partnership with Equal Rights Washington, which is looking for a larger space to house its programs and staff. Whatever the outcome, the situation is less than ideal for the Center, says Anderson.

"We are actively researching these things," she says. "We understood it would be a temporary move. We don't see ourselves as being able to provide that same central meeting space as we would like."

According to Anderson, the Community Center has had a "fairly constant" annual budget of approximately $200,000 over the last "two or three" years. She says the two largest expenses of the Center are salaries (for the Center's Interim Executive Director Dennis Poplin and Center Coordinator Anna Bacler) and the rent and utilities, which total approximately $8,000 a month as a standalone expense.

Most of the Center's income in 2007 came from events such as the Fruit Bowl Awards and QueerFest, both events held in June. In addition to small grants for the arts and smoking cessation efforts, the city of Seattle also provides about $16,000 a year in funding to support the Center's volunteer-staffed resource and referral line. The bulk of the Center's income flows from individual donors, rental fees and membership dues.

Although Anderson described Fruit Bowl as "moderately profitable" and QueerFest as "financially solvent and profitable," vendors providing a variety of services at the events last June continue to go unpaid. AV-Pro Inc., which provided projection lighting at QueerFest, and Tuxedos and Tennis Shoes, which supplied catering services at Fruit Bowl, are among the largest vendors still awaiting payment for their services. Anderson says Interim Director Dennis Poplin has been in contact with the vendors and hopes to pay off some debts within 45 days.

Fruit Bowl staged last June brought approximately 400 people to the Seattle Center's Fisher Pavillion who paid between $75 and $100 each for tickets. The event also featured a live auction and several tables of silent auction items. Budweiser and Neighbours Nightclub alone donated upwards of $70,000 to the Center to be sponsors of QueerFest. Other sponsors of QueerFest - including Budweiser, Microsoft, Panache, Girl4Girl, the SGN, and others - donated as well.

The eventual fate of the money raised by these two events is unclear. Anderson says there is no line item in the budget for the events and they were "mixed in with the whole." Presumably, the money was used for other Center priorities. "Events are fairly expensive to put on," she explains.

Earlier this year, the Seattle Gay News broke the story that Seattle Out and Proud (SOAP) owed the city more than $100,000 for its use of the Seattle Center during the 2006 downtown Pride March/Festival, with preexisting debts owed from two years prior. SOAP had not acted to solve its fiscal problems for a number of months before the SGN uncovered documents and interviewed sources for its series of stories about the situation.

In response to SOAP's monetary issues, former Center Executive Director Shannon Thomas pledged transparency in the Center's handling of QueerFest and its finances. Anderson was forced to eat crow on behalf of the Center on Thursday.

"It's an honest criticism of the Center," she said. "Now, [it's] reckoning time for that & I think it is fair to say mistakes were made."

Anderson noted that Thomas - who resigned last July - was "very big on [the] strict division of responsibilities between the executive and the board & as a matter of policy." Therefore, the board had little knowledge of who had been paid and in what order. She says that after becoming co-chair in April she had urged the board to "take this up and be up on [the finances] in more detail because [they] were the ones, ultimately, that had to see this through."

Under the direction of Poplin, an accountant is now responsible for looking after the finances since the resignation of the board's Vice President of Finance, Warren Keck, two months ago. Anderson said Keck resigned due largely to "stress" and that other board members who have recently resigned have not cited the Center's financial situation as a reason.

However, the financial woes of the organization extend beyond its debts. The future of the nonprofit, established in 1996, remains an unanswered question. Anderson is optimistic about the Center's future and described the Center's current position as a "retrenchment" and stated this was "not the end" of the organization, though she admits traditional methods of fundraising have failed and an appeal to the city for a greater contribution has fallen on deaf ears.

"At what point do you fire off the flare?" asked Anderson. "We tried a lot of stuff. The first thing you don't say is 'Help, we're drowning!' & Right now, we are at that particular point.

"When you telegraph any kind of weakness, [donors] say, 'Well, maybe I'll send it to the chorus instead, because I like going to the chorus and I know they'll still be there tomorrow.'"

Anderson said she can't imagine Seattle without the Center, especially since Seattle boasts one of the largest populations of LGBT people in the nation. To lose the Center, she says, would be "shameful."

"Some things the Center does are harder to communicate or market," she says. "The Center & is more infrastructural [and] makes all the services [in the LGBT community] work better.

Anderson said that the assumption among members of the board regarding Fruit Bowl is that "the show must go on," but that the event might not exist in the same form as it did in the past. The future of QueerFest is also unknown, says Anderson, because the "organization is focused on more fundamental priorities right now."

"It's important for the community to know that if they don't support the Community Center, it won't exist," Anderson says. "I hope in some sense that people will begin to think about the value that it has to them. It's like the classic lyrics to the song, 'you don't know what you got till it's gone.'"

SGN Staff Writer Nick Ardizzone contributed to this report.

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