Borough trying to help the Rec Considers hiring fund-raising firm to assist in overcoming center’s financial challenges
By: GARY P. KLINGER Review Correspondent, Staff Writer
Members of Ephrata Borough Council seem poised to take aggressive action to turn around the financial challenges currently faced by the Ephrata Recreation Center.
At Monday night’s council meeting, members were presented with a $26,000 proposal by Jennifer Silbert, of Silbert Fund Raising, which would take a multi-pronged approach to the situation.
In what is expected to take up approximately four months to complete, Silbert would spend the first three months doing a feasibility study by actively conducting in-person interviews of people across the Rec Center’s service market. At Monday night’s council work session, borough manager Bob Thompson explained that roughly 25 percent of the center’s current membership comes from outside the borough, including Ephrata Township, Clay Township, Denver Borough and East Cocalico Township.
Community Services Committee chair Thomas Reinhold explained to council that the Rec Center has a relatively new board, of which he is a member, representing borough council.
"I’m not sure how the board has changed since I was just appointed in January but there is a lot of enthusiasm," said Reinhold, who described rec board members as motivated to find new and creative measures to turn the center’s current financial woes around.
In another effort to help, Thompson explained, borough council authorized a payment of $117,775 in December to Ephrata National Bank, trustee of the Rec’s debt service.
Thompson told council that he, along with Silbert and Gail Bare, have visited the Lititz Recreation Center for some input on the current situation. He explained that at one point, the Lititz center faced a similarly daunting task: they were cash strapped, and a majority of the income was based on memberships.
But what makes the Lititz Rec Center of interest to Ephrata is the turn around the Lititz Rec has had over the past number of years.
Both Thompson and Silbert drove home the point that for such a community center to be viable and successful, there needs to be two components to revenue: one part driven by memberships and one part driven by contributions and corporate donations.
What has made the financial viability at the Ephrata Rec a challenge is that it has relied almost entirely on membership revenue to support operations, leading to the situation as it is today.
"Where we are falling short is the membership and donations side," said Thompson. "And that is what lead us to contact Jennifer (Silbert) for a proposal for the rec center."
Silbert is a member of the community with over 18 years experience working with South Central Pennsylvania organizations including libraries, hospitals, museums, community centers and even colleges with such turn-around projects. She also has 10 years experience working in Washington DC. Silbert holds an MBA in marketing.
Silbert’s work would begin with a feasibility study, looking at community perceptions as well as what community support funds may be as of yet untapped. The goal of the work is to draw on this information to customize an approach which will lead to greater corporate contributions and local donations. She emphasized that the rec center simply cannot make it on memberships alone. And she added that the community needs to embrace the fact that the center is a community center meeting a number of very specific needs across the community.
"The piece that is missing is the community piece," said Silbert. "That is what makes the center so vital to the community. We need to be promoting this as a public service to the community."
Silbert’s proposal would take a complete look at the local center, considering the role of volunteers, as well as the responsibility of the rec’ board of directors.
"We want to fully engage the board in this process," added Silbert. "And then we need to train the volunteers. This is all dependent on great volunteers. Then we will craft a message that resonates with the community."
The goal of this effort is that Silbert will be able to present the board with a viable business plan going forward. This plan would include action steps, timelines and goals for improving volunteerism and contributions.
Looking at other centers of excellence will also be a part of the rec center effort. Silbert mentioned not only the Lititz Rec’s turnaround but also the successful rec in York.
Thompson echoed Silbert’s perspective.
"A continuous flow of contributions and donations have allowed a constant stream of revenue to allow capital projects at Lititz," added Thompson. "That center follows the YMCA model on this. No community center like that will make it on memberships alone. Like them, we need to look at municipal and school district contributions and we’ll have to identify what available resources are in the community."
Challenged by council member Anthony Kilkuskie on the timing needed to bring the needed balance with contributions and donations, Silbert estimated it could take 12 to 18 months before there are noticeable changes. And she added that the effort to keep this in balance is a never-ending effort to maintain.
Kilkuskie also asked if Silbert had made her presentation to the rec center board. Silbert answered that she had not but that she had both toured the facility and that she, along with Thompson, had met with new rec center director Jim Summers and new rec board president Andy Gehman.
"I did give Mr. Summers a list of items we would want to review and he has provided that info," added Silbert.
Nobody from the rec center or the rec board were present at Monday night’s meeting, a point not lost with council member Vic Richard, who asked if they had been invited. Thompson said that they had been. Concurrently, Reinhold issued a special request for members of rec center leadership to be present at next Monday’s regular session of council to address questions prior to a vote on Silbert’s proposal.
Contacted Tuesday, Summers said he had planned to attend next Monday’s voting session. He also gave a statement regarding the current situation and the help being offered by the borough.
"The Ephrata Recreation Center is grateful for the assistance provided by Ephrata Borough Council," Summers said.
"As with many not-for-profit organizations, the economic downturn has cut into revenues and community and business support at the same time that energy, insurance and other operating costs have increased significantly.
Summers went on to explain how the wording in the rec’s time-honored mission statement takes on new meaning right now while at the same time making the situation even more challenging.
"The Rec Center is committed to its mission of improving the quality of life by providing wholesome, affordable recreation opportunities to the citizens of the Ephrata area," he said. "Affordable takes on an even greater significance during a slow economy and the Rec had endeavored to meet this part of the mission. Unfortunately it makes a tight budget even tighter."
He went on to allude to some of the "community" aspect alluded to by Silbert Monday night that adds yet another challenge for the rec.
"The Rec has always cherished its role in the fabric of the community and willingly provides services that don’t always result in dollars coming into its coffers," Summers said. "Fourth of July fireworks, Community Band, Golden Years Club, many youth programs, free use of the facilities for civic and athletic groups, farm show parade seating and AARP classes are some of the endeavors that rely on rec time, space and staff yet yield little in net revenue."
Council member Bob Good was not immediately sold on the idea of taking this step.
"What we are dealing with is that we want this entity in the community to be successful but as we discussed previously, three strikes and you are out," commented Good. "That is why the mayor etc. is saying that assurances are nice but I’d feel a lot better if I knew where the driving force was going to be because I have my doubts. I’m not taking anyone’s word for anything. I like the idea for the program; but I also know that in fundraising you are hinging on the fact that fundraising could be the majority of the money that comes in for that organization."
Council president Dale Hertzog, for his part, allowed a free exchange of ideas but then offered some encouragement to Good.
"I understand your concern but I think it is encumbered on us to allow this organization a chance to make it," said Hertzog. "Ms. Silbert is offering a wonderful product with a large exhaustive resume and proven track record. We got to give this a shot."
What finally sold Good however were the additional comments of Silbert herself.
"We are too busy to put out a proposal that we don’t want to do," she said. "The center is lacking and community is not embracing this. But if this community comes together and pulls together, I know this can be turned around."
Summers, just months into his new role, talked very positively about the future.
"With a committed board of directors and energized staff, the Rec has already begun a four-point recovery plan to keep it viable in the Ephrata community," Summers said. "(We want to) again thank Ephrata Borough Council for its support."
Borough Council will officially vote on the measure at next Monday night’s regular voting session held at 7 p.m. in borough council chambers. As with all borough council meetings, the public is always welcome to attend.
For additional information on Ephrata Borough, visit ephrataboro.org. Gary P. Klinger welcomes your questions, comments and suggestions via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. More BOROUGH, page A6