DeFrank center lays off staff
by Matthew S. Bajko
San Jose's Billy DeFrank LGBT Community Center, still reeling from a financial crisis after it lost its government funding this summer, is laying off several staff members this month and moving toward a volunteer-run management structure.
Kevin Nguyen, the center's director of programming, will depart September 15, while interim Executive Director Paul Wysocki, who was brought on six months ago, will leave September 30.
"I see this as a positive step," said Wysocki, who plans to continue to consult pro bono with the board after he steps down. "It is a chance to regroup and figure out what the community wants to see in a community center."
Also departing as of October 1 will be board president Anne Hansen after three years on the center's oversight body. Hansen took the helm of the board this spring after the forced departures of former board president PJ Matarese and executive director Aejaie Sellers. The center's members are set to elect several new board members later this month; the new board will then vote in a new president.
"It is kind of like the DeFrank hit bottom and now we are in recovery. People are really understanding that to keep a building open it is not free," said Hansen. "I think we are in a healthier place than we have ever been."
The center's board announced the news in a September 1 e-mail under the headline "Back To Our Roots, Forward To The Future!" The board wrote that shifting to being a 100 percent volunteer organization "is the most effective and efficient way to continue offering you the services and programs that you expect, while developing plans for a sustainable and community-driven future."
Also slated to be let go were the center's director of HIV programming, Anthony Trazo, and administrative assistant John Breen. But the board decided to keep Breen on to help with the day-to-day management of the building, and local resident Robert Fletcher stepped forward to fund the center's HIV testing program through December, a monthly cost of $5,000.
As of October 1 the DeFrank center will have paid off all of its debts, and by December, it will have paid back a $150,000 loan it took out in 2004. Hansen said that the center's monthly operating costs through the end of the year are $7,000 and then it should drop down to under $5,000 a month starting in 2010.
In addition to the $5,000 from Fletcher, other donors are contributing $3,200 a month toward the building's expenses.
"That is saving us right now," said Hansen.
San Jose-based LGBT magazine OutNow recently moved its offices into the DeFrank and is paying rent, and Hansen said the board is talking to several nonprofits about also becoming tenants to help it defray its operating expenses.
"I think partnering is the future for many nonprofits," she said.
DeFrank officials plan to use the next four months to determine what services the center should provide and then, in January, begin seeking out funding for the programs. A special HIV Task Force has also been convened to examine if there is a need for HIV services provided by the DeFrank, and if so, how to fund the program come January.
"The board said let's suspend things, get our books in order, and then start hard in January to get foundation money and grant money," said Hansen, who said the board is trying to raise $50,000 to pay for the needs assessment. "Then we will be stronger than ever is how I kind of look at that."
Center officials had initially warned the DeFrank's members that the building could close at the start of September due to its budget problems, despite having a $1 a year sweetheart rental agreement with the San Jose Redevelopment Agency. The center also launched this summer what it called the "1,000 @ $20/month" fundraising campaign in an effort to raise $20,000 each month to cover its expenses.
As of this week center officials said they had met 18 percent of their goal. The center also exceeded a $10,000 matching grant challenge from San Jose Vice Mayor Judy Chirco by raising $12,000 last month.
"I still think there is good will toward the DeFrank center and the LGBT community center in general. No matter what controversies the organization has gone through the last year, that hasn't changed," said Clark Williams, who was the center's interim executive director in 2005 and will help lead the HIV Task Force. "People still want to see some type of LGBT center in San Jose."
Matarese said he is concerned about the center's ability to survive but sees the departures of Wysocki and Hansen as positive developments.
"I think it needs to find its purpose and needs to have the appropriate staff and programs to support that purpose," said Matarese. "I very much agree with Paul that the center has just been doing the same thing over and over again. I appreciated his vision that it is time for the center to reinvent itself, but I really haven't seen that happen."
The center had planned to hold a public forum Thursday, September 10 to discuss the changes. But Hansen said the meeting had to be rescheduled because the DeFrank was already fully booked this evening. As of press time, a new date had yet to be announced.