How Firm a Foundation?

How much difference can a year make? Just ask the folks at Cornerstone. When the Austin gay and lesbian community center opened last summer after years of effort, its founders had big dreams for the new site: It would provide information and referral services, rooms for meetings, and office space for professionals and organizations serving the community. In short, Cornerstone was to be a foundation of support for a River City gay community that has no neighborhood to call its own, like the Montrose in Houston or the famed Castro district in San Francisco. Perhaps Cornerstone leaders set their expectations too high when they flung open the center's doors on June 1, 1996. A year later, the nonprofit Cornerstone is facing a serious cash crunch and its board members are looking to the community to rescue a dream. Sadly, the reciprocal support Cornerstone needs to fulfill its mission has yet to come from the same people the center strives to serve. "We need that constant community support, and if the community doesn't want to support it, we need to ask ourselves, `Do we need it?'" says Bill Weaver, a Cornerstone board member.

It is a question worth asking. Cornerstone's supporters, of course, say the answer is an unqualified "yes." "I really think we need to take care of our own," says Carrie Bills, who is a Cornerstone founder and chairwoman of the board of directors for Out Youth Austin, which operates a drop-in center at Cornerstone for gay and lesbian youth.

"We have our own culture," Bills says. "It's unique. It's wonderful. It's something to be proud of."

Other boosters point to Cornerstone's founding last year as evidence that Austin's gay and lesbian community is maturing and becoming a more influential force in the city, politically and socially. "We've become more of a community the last few years," says Allan Baker, chairman of Austin Lesbian/Gay Political Caucus (ALGPC). Baker and others say Cornerstone can serve as a focus for a gay and lesbian community that has -- in an environment with thousands of more or less transient students and young workers and no identifiable gay neighborhood -- traditionally lacked a sense of cohesion.

Community organizations also seem to acknowledge a need for the community center. Cornerstone officials say that the center each month hosts an average of 35 to 40 meetings and other events scheduled by community organizations. Also, in addition to Out Youth, Cornerstone leases office space to the administrative staff of Metropolitan Community Church of Austin (which ministers largely to gay and lesbian Christians), as well as to a number of gay and lesbian professionals and non-profit organizations.

Cornerstone's board members insist that those renters are in no imminent danger of losing a home at the facility at 1117 Red River, where the center has four years remaining on its lease. "But just to have our doors open does not fulfill our vision for what a dynamic force Cornerstone can be for the gay and lesbian community," says board chairman Sandy Bartlett.

Even so, the financial squeeze is cause for alarm, observers say, because Cornerstone pulls in just barely enough money to meet monthly expenses. "It's really scary for an organization not to have one or two months [of financial reserves] built up," says Kathy Taylor, who in April resigned as Cornerstone's director and its sole full-time paid staff member. Taylor says she knew Cornerstone could no longer afford her $2,500 monthly salary. "Cornerstone couldn't stop paying the rent," she says. "It could stop paying my salary." Taylor's resignation, however, provided only a little breathing room for the financially strapped organization.

Money Matters

Cornerstone's cash squeeze is largely the product of two factors: disappointing results from special fundraising events, and slow growth in donor membership. "Cornerstone is vulnerable... in that we rely disproportionately at this time on special events," Bartlett says. But some of those events have been successful. For example, says Bartlett, Club Skirt, a regular dance and social gathering for the lesbian community, averages about $1,400 a month.

Unfortunately, other events have not fared as well. A major March fundraiser -- a downtown block party that was held the weekend thousands of gay and lesbian Texans marched on the Capitol to press for a stronger hate-crimes law -- netted only $1,500 of the $10,000 Cornerstone officials had anticipated. The stunning failure of the party's proceeds (or the overly optimistic projection of revenues) caused an immediate financial crisis: The money had been budgeted to cover a nearly $5,000 property insurance bill that was due in May. "That was the one that put us behind the eight-ball," Bartlett recalls of the March fundraiser.

At an emergency board meeting a week after the block party, Taylor took the bold and unusual step of eliminating her own salary from the budget by resigning -- though she continues working for Cornerstone as a volunteer, helping to organize Club Skirt and other events. Taylor's resignation and a relatively successful April phone-bank campaign helped Cornerstone survive the immediate financial crisis. Paying the property insurance bill, however, again left Cornerstone's bank account with little financial cushion. Additionally, the loss of a full-time, on-site director was a big one for a busy center.

Meanwhile, the center still needs $4,000 to $5,000 each month just to maintain operations at its current level and to put money away for future property insurance costs, and an annual property tax bill projected to be about $12,000. Current revenues -- largely from donors, office rentals, and special events -- are bringing in just under the needed revenue, Bartlett says, and providing expanded services and programming -- including a full-time staff and the ability to provide seed money for various community organizations and projects -- would require substantially more revenue.

Cornerstone's board members had expected that steadily increasing donor membership would provide the revenue to cover those costs. In fact, the increase has been too small and too slow -- the biggest factor in Cornerstone's financial squeeze. There currently are less than 100 sustaining members at $20 a month, and less than 300 donor "friends" at $35 a year, says Bartlett, far fewer than the targets of 200 sustaining memberships and 2,000 "friends" needed to maintain a healthy budget.

Why hasn't the support from the gay and lesbian community materialized? It's not that the expectation that membership would steadily increase was unrealistic, Taylor says. "What wasn't realistic was our ability to go out and solicit that support," she adds. "People aren't going to give unless they're asked."

Although Taylor's duties included soliciting that member support, it's hard to see how she could have devoted much time to the task. As Cornerstone's sole paid staff member, Taylor spent long hours running the center's day-to-day operations, planning fundraising events, and serving as a resource for community organizations wanting to use the center's facilities for meetings and events. Her efforts did not go unnoticed by the board. "No one ever worked harder and put in more hours for a paycheck than Kathy did," Bartlett says.

Unfortunately, board members didn't cover the areas that Taylor couldn't. Some acknowledge that many board members simply didn't realize how active they would have to be in promoting and operating the center. "I guess the board in the fall just thought this would happen without doing all the work," Weaver says. Bartlett adds that he and other board members would gladly have provided more help if Taylor had expressed a need for it. But as the work of volunteer board members became more time-consuming, several members took leaves of absence or declined to renew their terms. By January of this year, Weaver says, the number of active board members was less than half of a full slate of 15. As a result, the board was unable to focus sufficiently on building a donor base at the very time when such a focus was most needed.

Since then, however, the board has made important strides in addressing those problems. New board members -- there now are only three vacancies -- know what's expected of them, Bartlett says. Various responsibilities, such as building membership, have been delegated to specific committees and board members are expanding a database of potential donors. Some observers are hoping the expanded database, which now stands at nearly 4,000 names, also will include more potential high-dollar donors in Austin's gay and lesbian community -- the kind of donor who annually antes up hundreds or even thousands of dollars for black-tie dinners and other fundraisers for other gay and lesbian organizations. But there is a great deal of competition for those donated dollars, and some consistent donors are beginning to feel tapped out -- so the potential donor base will have to be large.

City to the Rescue?

Another funding source Cornerstone's board could consider is the city. In fact, community centers typically are underwritten with public funds. Locally, for example, the East Austin Multipurpose Center, Rosewood-Zaragosa, and other neighborhood community centers have received funds from federal Community Development Block Grants administered by the city. In California, the San Jose Redevelopment Agency recently approved a $1.5 million grant for a new facility for the city's gay and lesbian community center. In San Francisco, city funds are expected to help pay for a new $5.5 million gay and lesbian center.

One could be excused for supposing -- cautiously -- that a request for city funding for Cornerstone would receive a positive hearing. Every current city councilmember has won election with either the endorsement or unofficial backing of the ALGPC, notes Baker. Last spring, Cornerstone even hosted a fundraiser for Kirk Watson's successful mayoral campaign. "The entire council has enjoyed support from the gay community," Baker says. "More important, they have reached out and expressed support for our concerns as a community." No formal request has been made for city funds, but Bartlett and other Cornerstone board members say they are aware of the opportunity.

Ultimately, however, Austin's gay and lesbian community must decide for itself whether Cornerstone is needed and whether, frankly, the center is due the same kind of financial support that flows weekly into the coffers of the city's gay bars and bathhouses. Such entertainment venues have their place, of course, but they don't offer the kinds of services that are needed in Austin's thriving and diverse gay community.

Providing such services was, after all, a big reason for founding Cornerstone. Other gay and lesbian community centers, such as those in Dallas and Los Angeles, provide a wealth of services and programming, such as legal and employment help and AIDS services. Of course, those services require large budgets. The Los Angeles center -- perhaps the jewel of gay and lesbian community centers -- has a full-time staff of 240 people and a budget of $16 million. Of course, part of the reason Los Angeles and other older community centers have such large budgets is because they provide comprehensive AIDS services which are not part of Cornerstone's mission. Although efforts are continuing to open a day center at Cornerstone for people infected with HIV, there are no plans to offer comprehensive AIDS services at the center, Bartlett says.

Nevertheless, Cornerstone fills other important needs by providing an institutional foundation on which Austin's gay and lesbian community and its organizations can grow. The community, after all, is maturing rapidly. It would be a shame if this maturing community didn't seize the opportunity to support the very institutions, like Cornerstone, that are helping it grow up.

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