Outback Center hoping for a comeback
Updated 1:46 pm, Wednesday, June 17, 2015
In spite of an announced plan to close the financially wobbly Outback Teen Center at the end of July, President Sangeeta Appel, board members and interested parents have started a campaign to raise the funds to avoid a shutdown.
While it held scheduled events through the end of this school year, leaders of the non-profit owned center trimmed back drop-in hours and announced no new events would be slated until it narrowed an $80,000 annual funding shortfall.
Appel told the group time is short to raise the needed $10,000 by mid-July to keep the center open during through the summer, buying time to begin addressing how to re-launch the center with the right programming and community support to keep it afloat. The center’s long-term future relies on getting more revenue or donations to cover the estimated $225,000 annually to operate and staff the center properly, she said.
“I don’t think the programs and getting people to come here is the issue and I think we’ve shown we’ve grown and had an increase,” Appel said. “The issue is how to we pay for it.”
During the meeting group members spoke about moving forward to rebrand the center and adjusti its mission into a youth and family center, increasing sponsorship of general programs as well as special events, and try to make a case publicly about the center’s value to the town’s youth.
“As a parent I only have one child but I would pay a membership to use this facility,” Rachel Lampen said.
Appel said the lack of funding for the center isn’t due to diminished use of the center, with the center attracting more than 8,000 visits from students and community members for 122 programs and events from high school dances and mixers to yoga, art, and study skill classes. That total was a more than 30-percent increase in use over the 2012-2013 year.
Reorienting the center will require hiring a top-notch administrator to oversee programs and raise funds.
“Good staff members don’t want to be stuck without a job and you have to pay fair market because they are here a lot of hours,” Appel said. “If you pay cut rate you will get cut rate people.”
While the building sits on town-owned land, it is owned by a 501c3 non-profit. If it closes, the $5,100 cost of the building’s upkeep would be paid for by the town.
Eileen Boyd, an Outback board member, said if there is another incarnation of the center, the next director of the center to be hired would have a successful background in fundraising in addition to experience administrating youth programs.
Parent Carrie Christer said the center needs to burnish its image by trumpeting the programs it offers.
“You need to remind everyone about the programs you run and everything you do,” Christer said.
This past budget season, the Board of Selectmen, Town Council, and Board of Finance did not act on a proposal from the Outback’s board proposing a three-year pilot partnership with the town which would include $83,000 in additional budget funding a year to run the center.
The town also withheld a $19,000 appropriation of town money to support the Outback’s programming, making its approval conditional on town human services officials deeming the center’s business plan to be self-sustaining.
Town Council Chairman Bill Walberg, who was part of a group that worked this year to review the Outback’s operations, said the traditional teen center model in somewhat less relevant to how youth pursue social activities today than in 2001, when the center opened.
Walberg said he believed the purpose-designed building would continue to be used to serve youth, and thinks a reconstituted board of community members and parents overseeing that function could bring fresh ideas on how to revive the center’s fortunes.
“Nobody wants to see the Outback Center die on their watch,” Walberg said. “Some kind of rebranding could be healthy for the organization. The rules of engagement that were established for teen center have proven in today’s economy and sensibility to be un-doable and that’s no one’s fault. We need to sit down and figure out what a teen center can look like and act like.”
Appel said most of the terms of the Outback board members are expiring, so any board running the center would be comprised of essentially new members.
“The current board has worked very hard and put their heart and soul into it and they deserve to be able to transition the role to another group,” Walberg said. “In my opinion the building should still be serving the youth and there has never been any other kind of discussion for how to use the building.” The teen center building, which was built for $1.5 million in 2001, is owned by a nonprofit corporation but is on town-owned land the group leases.
The money would help pay the salary of a Youth Recreation Supervisor who would oversee programming, while the board would pursue diversifying programming to appeal to other segments of the community than youth.
In the past two years, the center’s board has added a wide range of “enrichment programs,” for middle and high school students including workshops in study skills, yoga, cooking, Scholastic Aptitude Test preparation along with traditional social events such as parties, movies, and band performances.
Parents and others interested in the campaign to save the Outback with financial donations or by offering their fundraising, administrative or other expertise should contact firstname.lastname@example.org.