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    A Bright Future for Our Center: Let’s Celebrate!

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    By Rafael Mandelman

    It is hard to believe that San Francisco’s LGBT Community Center is fourteen years old this year! It’s no secret that there have been difficult times along the way, times when folks in the broader community, and even at the Center itself, have questioned the viability of the institution. Today, though, the Center stands on firmer financial ground than ever, and has embarked on a building remodel that should ensure its sustainability well into the future.

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    Like a lot of people, following the initial excitement of the building’s opening back in 2002, my primary exposure to the Center consisted of attending events or meetings that happened to be located in the building. My campaign for District 8 Supervisor in 2010 gave me a reason to go a little deeper. From Mark Leno to Bevan Dufty to Scott Wiener, the D8 Supes have all been Center champions, and Bevan signed the 2010 candidates up as monthly sustaining contributors.

    I started attending Center fundraisers and learning more about the extraordinary work the Center does for so many, from new arrivals to San Francisco looking to connect with resources, to transgender folks looking for a job, to wannabe entrepreneurs looking to start a business, to homeless and other at-risk queer youth, to folks struggling to find housing in San Francisco’s increasingly brutal housing market.

    And I got to know the Center’s extraordinary Executive Director, Rebecca Rolfe. Rebecca’s steady competence and determined persistence have served the Center well through its challenging childhood and pre-adolescence. But what I have valued most about Rebecca is her vision of the Center as an institution that binds our entire community together, that connects people with needs and people with means and works to ensure that, at least in San Francisco, the queers move forward together, with no one left behind.

    Serving on the Center’s Board, which I joined in 2011, has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my adult life.  Like a lot of non-profits, the Center’s fundraising had taken a serious hit during the Great Recession, and even as we began to emerge from that challenging period, we knew the Center was laboring under a structural problem that had plagued it from the beginning.

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    Building operations—primarily the renting out of office space to tenants and meeting and event spaces for community use—simply were not sufficient to cover the building’s costs, especially factoring in the $3 million debt remaining from the original construction project. The Center’s Board and staff were on a hamster wheel of perpetual fundraising simply to cover that structural gap, with Board members and other supporters regularly being asked to provide short-term loans to keep the operation going. This was not sustainable.

    We knew we needed a “game-changer,” and thus began a series of conversations, first among Board members and Center staff and gradually with friends outside the Center, including Supervisors Wiener and Campos, Amy Cohen in the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, and Kate Howard, the Mayor’s budget director. City Hall stepped in with additional resources to stabilize the situation and help the Center explore a reconfiguration of the building layout to solve two problems at once: resolving the structural imbalance between building operations and revenue, and at the same time creating new much-needed office space for community-serving nonprofits at risk of displacement from San Francisco.

    Working with our enormously talented development consultant, John Clawson at Equity Community Builders, Rebecca and her team developed a $6.5 million renovation plan, primarily funded by New Market Tax Credits, which will achieve both of those goals. Within the next several weeks, we will close on the financing—special recognition is due to Capital One, our major investor, which has gone above and beyond to make the renovation possible—and construction will begin shortly thereafter.

    As we proceed with this remodel and see our fifteenth anniversary year coming into view, I feel more optimistic about the Center’s future than ever, and am incredibly grateful to all those Center founders, Board members and other donors who have sustained the Center to this point. It’s a good time for a celebration.

    The theme of this year’s Soiree, the Center’s big annual fundraising event, is “The Imaginarium,” and its organizers promise it will be a celebration of “the creative power of our community’s imaginative minds.” The event will be held on Saturday, April 9, at Terra Gallery, 511 Harrison Street, and will again consist of two parts: a sit-down dinner followed by a fabulous party, with Juanita MORE! curating the entertainment. Doors for the dinner will open at 5:00 pm, and the party will begin at 8:30 pm. Join us! You can sign up to sponsor the event or purchase tickets at www.sfcenter.org/soiree2016

    “San Francisco Bay Times” columnist Rafael Mandelman is the Chair of the Board of Directors for the San Francisco LGBT Community Center. He is an attorney for the City of Oakland, and is also President of the City College of San Francisco Board of Trustees.