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Shared space spares waste

IOWA CITY– Four nonprofit organizations came together last Thursday to celebrate a very welcomed gift.
In September, the Johnson County Board of Supervisors agreed to sell its former Public Health building for $1 to the Crisis Center of Johnson County. Space in the 7,300 square foot building will be used to supplement the Crisis Center’s current location next door, and the rest will be leased to the Domestic Violence Intervention Program (DVIP), the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) of Johnson County and Iowa City’s Free Lunch Program.
Staff and volunteers from the four nonprofit organizations and many community supporters gathered in front of the building at 1105 Gilbert Ct. in Iowa City– the building’s address was the inspiration for nicknaming the proposal the 1105 Project– to celebrate the collaboration with a groundbreaking ceremony last Thursday, Oct. 4.
In 2009, the board of supervisors began to discuss disposal of the vacant building after the county built a new Health and Human Services building on Dubuque Street. Originally, the county planned to sell the Gilbert Court building to the highest bidder, but when the sale didn’t transpire, eventually new discussions arose about ways the Crisis Center might benefit from using the property.
In February 2012, Crisis Center Executive Director Becci Reedus presented a proposal to the supervisors for its purchase and eventual collaborative use by the four organizations. At that time, the proposal was for the Crisis Center to buy 1105 Gilbert Ct. for $50,000 over the course of 20 years. When the county put out a request for additional proposals, no others came forward.
The supervisors were advised that while they could not sell property at less than fair market value, the county could gift property that was deemed for the public’s benefit. Since the Free Lunch Program planned to install a commercial grade kitchen in the facility, the county’s new Food Policy Council could potentially use that kitchen to offer public demonstrations and education opportunities, and for local food growers to process foods.
Therefore, the board of supervisors unanimously voted to sell the property for $1 with the stipulation that the kitchen be available for the county’s local foods initiative when the Free Lunch Program was not using it, and the collaborative project moved forward.
Federal Community Development Block Grant funds, administered through the City of Iowa City, also became available for the project.
“It’s a pure example of that, if you get enough people and energy together, good things tend to happen,” said Johnson County Supervisor Janelle Rettig after last week’s groundbreaking. “It is helpful that they quickly grasped the county’s interest in local foods and a commercial grade kitchen that could be rented out by local food producers.”
Rettig said since the county supports all four agencies that will be housed in the building, the collaborative nature of the 1105 Project can produce financial benefits as well.
“We simply can’t afford not to work together. We have a growing county with growing problems and a donor base that is not growing to keep up, so something’s gotta give,” said Rettig. “DVIP is facing some serious cuts. The subsidies for the food bank part of the Crisis Center is on the chopping block, everything is facing cuts and that means the collaboration has to happen more than ever. The smart agencies in Johnson County realize they can’t keep going it alone; the math just doesn’t add up.”
Reedus said the additional space will help relieve the space crunch the Crisis Center is currently experiencing in its headquarters next door.
“We certainly have a stake in this building. We need the training space, we need the private meeting space that we don’t have any in our own building. This will allow us put some cubicles in for students who do valuable projects for us.” Also, more than 1,500 volunteers do work for the four agencies combined, Reedus said.
All four organizations have given input into the redesign of the building’s interior. Half of the building will be dedicated to the Free Lunch Program, which serves free meals to approximately 44,000 clients who walk through their doors each year. A quarter of the building will house DVIP office and meeting space for clients in need of emergency shelter, support and information due to domestic violence and abuse. The remainder of the space will be shared between the NAMI of Johnson County– the entity that provides self-help information, support and advocacy to help individuals and families affected by mental illness– and the Crisis Center, which provides food, financial and other emergency assistance, suicide prevention, support groups and natural disaster relief to Johnson County residents.
Reedus said a building project committee interviewed architect firms last week. The agencies will continue to confer with the architect on building design, and then put the construction specs out for bid. Reedus said the hope is for the building to be open to the public by July 1, but the project’s timeline is still very uncertain.
What is certain is the spirit of collaboration this project has fostered, Reedus indicated.
“Collaboration is something we learn to appreciate because we learn so much from each other, and by sharing our ideas we save time because we don’t have to reinvent wheels,” said Reedus. She said she spent 30 years in the Detroit area during depressed economic times and saw a lot of service agencies that struggled to survive. Some didn’t, she noted. Nonprofit service organizations provide vital services for people, and working together creates efficiencies that allow agencies to stay operational.
The four entities often share some of the same clients, Reedus added, and having space in the two adjacent buildings will allow greater access to clients seeking services.
“We know we will serve at least 45,000 individuals and families from this building,” Reedus told the assembled crowd, “but we intend on breaking that record sometime in the first year.”
There is now a capital campaign in progress to raise funds for the building’s renovation, with a goal that none of the agencies have to take funds from their operating budgets.
“The less we have to spend in operating cost, the more we can provide services to the vulnerable citizens of our communities,” Reedus said.
Rettig said she is proud of the county’s role in making the 1105 Project a reality.
“I can’t imagine a better use for this building. This will be a long-term investment in the people of Johnson County,” said Rettig.