Where is the center of Moorestown?
We’re not talking geographically, or governmentally—but socially.
It probably depends who you ask, but for many the answer would likely be the .
It’s been the site of countless dances, soirees, weddings, baby showers and birthdays, and at one point or other, the home of virtually every nonprofit and club in Moorestown, not to mention the and the .
And it’s here because 87 years ago, the people in town decided it was worth having. Now, in order to restore it, the people in town need to decide it’s worth keeping.
In 1925, the community house’s first benefactor, multi-millionaire and Victor Talking Machine Company founder Eldridge Johnson, donated $250,000 (about $3 million today) to finance the construction of the community house on one condition: That the townspeople pony up a sizable amount of money as well to create a “permanent maintenance fund” for operational expenses.
The rest of Moorestown put up $115,000 (roughly $1.4 million today), which was used to create an endowment for the 25,000-square-foot structure. And over the first several decades of its existence, the trustees fed the endowment through bequests and other donations and kept it healthy.
But as the 86-year-old building aged and maintenance and capital improvement costs climbed, the endowment began to ebb. The market crash of a few years ago certainly didn’t help either.
“Over the last 20 years, we’ve been taking it out and not putting it in,” said executive director Bill Newborg. “We were at a point where we were actually using money from the endowment to supplement the operating budget. That is like eating your young. You cannot do that long before you’re gone. So it was readily apparent that if we didn’t get something going here, our future looked a little—I don’t wanna say dim … ”
George Schulmann, president of the board of trustees, chimed in: “Three years ago it looked really dim.”
About 2.5 years ago, they converted the gymnasium into a ballroom to host weddings and other functions. That change, Schulmann said, will ensure the community house’s continued survival for years to come. Revenue from renting out the room—they’re up to about 40 weddings a year, Newborg said—has allowed them to not only pay down the $850,000 mortgage they opened in order to reconstruct the gym, but also gradually improve their financial standing.
However, Newborg and Schulmann want to do more than survive. So for the first time since its founding, the community house has launched a capital campaign.
The ballroom, as much of a success as it’s been, is not enough to resolve the building’s ongoing, longstanding maintenance issues. A partial list of the improvements they’d like (and in a few cases need) to make:
- Redo the restrooms, which have plumbing that goes back nearly to the building’s beginnings.
- Improve the HVAC.
- Repairs to the slate roof.
- Resurface the parking lot.
- Make the building compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
- “Point” the bricks—Schulmann explained the mortar between the bricks is moving away, and in some spots there are small plants growing out of the mortar. Fixing that alone will cost more than $100,000.
“That’s unfortunately stuff that gets postponed because you have more immediate needs,” Newborg said. “The true answer for us is that we get the mortgage paid off, the money that we are now spending for mortgage payments can go toward capital improvements, can go toward operating budget, and probably for the first time in a long time, we will see ourselves in a positive cash flow.”
And by improving the building’s financial situation, Newborg said they’d be able to lower the cost of renting space to nonprofits, which is the core of the community house’s mission.
“We’re like an incubator for nonprofits,” said Schulmann. “The nonprofits have been hurt more than anybody in this economy, so we want to make sure we remain the home for them.”
So just like Eldridge Johnson did lo those many years ago, the community house is turning to the community for help. The building has till now relied on a twice-yearly, soft-sell mailer asking for donations, and for the past seven years, its annual wine tasting (coming up on March 31).
Newborg and Schullmann, as well as capital campaign coordinator Gina Zegel, are careful to avoid the word “desperate” when explaining how much they need the campaign to be a success.
But it’s been 87 years since the community house ran a capital campaign. That should tell you everything you need to know about how much they need the money.
Their stated goal is to raise $1 million, though Schulmann said the total of all the improvements they’d like to make is closer to $2 million.
To learn more about the community house or to make a donation, visit their website.
Because the building has such a rich history and represents something different to each person in town, it’s difficult for Newborg, Schulmann and Zegel to sum up why it’s so important. In many ways, they said, it epitomizes that small-town atmosphere people often cite as the reason they move to Moorestown.
“We’re a home for nonprofits and we feel like we’re a home for the town,” said Schulmann. “And the town basically raised the money to build this place, raised the money to support this place. And now we’re back to the point where we need to ensure the survival for the next 85 years.”