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Wednesday, July 11,2012

Where are they bound?

The Black Child and Family Institute moves out of the old Genesee School; the Lansing School District hasn't yet decided what to do with the building

by Lawrence Cosentino

Martha Bibbs, ebullient president of Lansing’s nonprofit Black Child and Family Institute, wiped some sorrowful sweat from her brow last week.

“As we were packing up the boxes, I really had some very strong emotions,” Bibbs said.

On June 30, the institute moved out of the only home it has known since its inception in 1986, the former Genesee School at 835 W. Genesee St. on the near west side of town.

Bibbs said the century-old building cost too much to maintain, especially in view of the nonprofit’s shrinking funding base. “We decided to stop the bleeding and move on,” she said.

The move was a classic grass-roots BCFI operation. 

Despite the heat, kids, teens and adults from the surrounding neighborhood helped the institute’s staff move boxes and equipment to a temporary summer home, the Foster Community Center.

The movers sifted the traces of hundreds of childhood and adult education classes, recreational and cultural programs, town hall meetings and summer camps. There were ribbons from holiday food baskets, blank forms from Ingham County health programs and photos of smiling kids raking leaves around the old building.

Bibbs admitted that the move was a wrench, but she said that in the long run it will help the institute modernize its services.

“We’re not going out of business because we have a mission that we believe in,” she said. “We worried about it for quite a while. Our resources should be put into children and families rather than an old building.”

Bibbs said the institute is looking at several options for a permanent home. She admitted, however, that it would be tough to top the dollar-a-year lease the institute enjoyed from the Lansing School District. 

But in recent years, even with the sweetheart lease, the building was starting to become a money pit. Last winter alone, the heating system and boilers failed. The tenants have been fighting a see-saw battle with mold on the lower floors and the roof is patchy. Plumbing problems are also starting to back up. Last year’s Freedom School, the institute’s summer reading program for at-risk youth, was moved to Willow Elementary School because the toilets couldn’t handle the traffic. This summer’s Freedom School is being held at Foster.

In the first years of the lease, the school district handled maintenance. As the district’s budget tightened, escalating maintenance costs were left to the institute, but a struggling nonprofit is ill-equipped to take on the restoration of a creaky 1912 school. State funding of $100,000 a year was the institute’s cornerstone when it was founded in 1986. That amount stayed the same through 2008, as expenses went up. In 2009, the amount was cut to $50,000 and the next year it was completely eliminated. 

One-shot grants from foundations and other benefactors, including the Kellogg Foundation, have helped keep the doors open, but BCFI treasurer Robert Proctor said the institute has seen other reductions in funding, including grant money and funding from the city.

When the institute decided to move out of the Genesee property by the end of the current fiscal year, Lansing’s Parks and Recreation Department provided the space at Foster for its summer programs.

“The city and the school district have been very supportive,” Proctor said. “They’re helping us as we try to transition to another site.”

Lansing Schools Superintendent Yvonne Caamal Canul said the district hasn’t decided what to do with the Genesee building yet. “Right now, we don’t have any plans,” Caamal Canul said. “Lots and lots of money needs to be sunk into that building to bring it into a condition we can lease it to organizations.”

Spokesmen for two smaller tenants remaining in the old school, Upward Bound and Closing the Digital Gap, said they hadn’t yet decided if or when to move out.

Caamal Canul said the school district will take a comprehensive look at its growing stock of vacant real estate in Lansing, but for now, decisions will be made on an ad hoc basis.

If the Black Child and Family Institute moved back into a closed Lansing school, she said, it would probably share space with other organizations who might sublease from the institute or lease directly from the district.

In any case, dollar-a-year rent is history.

“If we’re going to deal with real estate, then let’s be serious and well-informed about the value of real estate,” Caamal Canul said. A quarter century ago, she said, the district’s fund equity topped $25 million and it didn’t pinch to offer cheap rent.

“But when you’re sitting on a fund equity that’s less than a million dollars, you just don’t have the luxury of leasing for a dollar a year to anyone,” she said.

Help BCFI

Anyone interested in helping the Black Child and Family Institute as it looks for a new permanent home can contact President Martha Bibbs at (517) 351-4436.


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