The Boys & Girls Club of the Corridor will cap off a $9 million capital fundraising campaign with the construction of a new, 19,000-square-foot facility in southeast Cedar Rapids, club officials announced July 29.
The new facility will be located next to the First Congregational United Church of Christ, at the intersection of Washington Avenue and 16th Street SE. The church itself has housed the Boys & Girls Club’s South Unit since 2004.
The new facility will also be directly across from the Johnson STEAM Academy Magnet School.
John Tursi, the club’s executive director, said he hopes to break ground on the new facility this fall and complete construction by the fall of 2023, coinciding with the club’s 30th anniversary.
To meet that timetable, Mr. Tursi said the club needs to reach the “finish line” of the capital campaign by early fall.
“Quite frankly, it’s gone very well,” he said. “We’re now near the end, and this is where we need the biggest amount of help.”
The new facility, which will also serve as the club’s new headquarters, will be known as the Boys & Girls Club of the Corridor Busse Unit. It’s being named for the LaVern and Audrey Busse family, well known for their work in the local investment and real estate field.
The capital campaign, dubbed “Unlocking the Future,” has raised about $8.2 million of its overall $9 million goal, Mr. Tursi said. The project began with a $7.5 million budget, but costs have increased significantly since its inception, he noted, leading to the overall $9 million campaign goal.
The campaign is a key step in the local history of the Boys & Girls Club, which established operations in a building commonly known as the former Ellis YMCA at 1501 Ellis Blvd. NW in November 1993. Founder Mike O’Deen “and a group of community advocates were inspired to provide a safe and fun place for underprivileged youth,” reads an article on the group’s history.
The site provided both a headquarters and a center for recreational activities. An indoor pool at the facility was closed in 1997, and the group then changed its formal name to the Boys & Girls Club of Cedar Rapids, serving about 45 youth daily, mostly in the Ellis neighborhood.
In 2004, the club partnered with the First Congregational United Church of Christ to establish its first satellite location, known as the South Unit, and expand its services to youth on the city’s east side.
The standalone Ellis Boulevard building was destroyed in the city’s devastating June 2008 flood, with water rising three feet into the second-floor gymnasium. After that facility was demolished in 2012, the club transitioned to an outreach model, opening the club’s Hoover Unit at St. Mark’s Methodist Church, 4700 Johnson Ave. NW; the Olivet Unit at Olivet Presbyterian Church, 237 10th St. NW; and the Taylor Unit at Maranatha Bible Church, 526 Third Ave. SW.
The club has also expanded its reach outside Cedar Rapids. The Iowa City Unit opened in 2016 at Faith Academy, 1030 Cross Park Ave. in Iowa City, as part of a partnership with the University of Iowa’s Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. The Marion Unit opened in 2019 at the former Marion Home School, now known as the Marion Youth Center, at 440 S. 15th St., the culmination of a series of meetings with a coalition of more than 20 non-profit agencies known as the Marion Youth Coalition that sought to address after-school needs for Marion’s youth.
Now spanning Linn and Johnson counties, the group changed its name in 2020 to the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Corridor, and now provides services to an estimated 300 young people daily via a central administrative office at Mercy Medical Center’s Sister Mary Lawrence Community Center, 420 Sixth Street SE.
Still, Mr. Tursi said, club leaders felt there was a need to establish a new standalone facility they could call their own, and a feasibility study was launched in September 2019.
“The study came back very positive,” Mr. Tursi said, “so we started looking into a capital campaign.”
Pandemic hastens need
The need became even more apparent when the club was forced to suspend services in early 2020 with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mr. Tursi noted.
“That really cemented the need to have our own facility, because quite frankly, we could have stayed open (during the pandemic),” he said. “There are a lot of clubs throughout the United States that stayed open. We did the best we could, and I take nothing away from what we did, but we knew if we had our own facility, we could have stayed open. Maybe we couldn’t have served all the kids, but we could have handpicked (those) that really needed us to be there, so they could get homework done and stay up with their studies.”
The capital campaign was launched in September 2021, and was buoyed when the First Congregational United Church of Christ’s leaders proposed a location for the new club.
“We knew that they had to build a parking lot next to the church, so we went and talked to them,” Mr. Tursi said. “and before I could even get the words out, Pastor Melanie (Van Weelden) said, ‘John, the reason we bought up all those other houses was so you could build a Boys and Girls Club on the property.’”
The new facility isn’t expected to replace any current Boys & Girls Club unit sites, Mr. Tursi said. In fact, the club hopes the building will offer the ability to double the number of students served overall each day, from 300 to nearly 600.
As plans for the new facility unfolded, Mr. Tursi said his vision of the future was dramatically expanded.
“I’m not a very spatially aware person,” he said. “So when we first approached the church, I was just hoping to get a gym. I thought ‘we’re just going to put up a steel-sided gym, because we’ve got everything else in the church.’ And when we started meeting with the architects, they were saying, ‘what are you talking about? There’s all kinds of space here. Let’s get you a whole facility.‘“
The new facility will be constructed on two levels. The first level will feature a gymnasium, a cafeteria with a serving kitchen, a large game room, educational space and a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) program room. The second level will feature amenities to appeal to pre-teens and teenagers, including a large teen center, a teaching kitchen, an art room and a music room with a DJ booth.
Mr. Tursi said he hopes those latter features will broaden the appeal of the Boys & Girls Club to an older youth audience, a segment that’s traditionally been difficult for the club to attract.
“We want to serve more teens, so we’re really trying to appeal to them,” he said, adding that one scenario under consideration would keep the center open an extra hour or two for teens, after the club’s younger clients leave.
“We tell everybody we’re (serving kids) five to 18 years old,” he said, “but the reality is we’re five to middle school. And the kids we keep in middle school are the kids that we’ve had huge success with. We ended up making them junior staff Career Development leaders, and that’s how we keep them — they get a job and they stay with us. That’s been such a successful program. Four out of our six units are actually run by people that went through the junior staff Career Development program. That’s a huge program for us, and it’s a way we try to keep the older kids.”
Mr. Tursi also noted he hopes the club’s facilities can be made available during day hours for use by the Johnson STEAM Academy, the church, or other community groups. Partnerships are already being negotiated with Tanager Place and the Young Parents Network, and others could be formed as well, he said.
“It would be a shame to have a gymnasium or a computer lab (sitting empty) that could be used by somebody during the day,” he said. “People could come in and further their education. We’re looking for all kinds of partnerships. We want this to be a true community facility.”
Leaders of the capital campaign committee said they’re excited for the possibilities the new facility will provide.
“The opportunity that Boys & Girls Club provides to the youth in our community to help them learn to succeed, both today and well into the future, is more important now than ever before,” said King’s Material president Charlie Rohde. “This magnificent project will help build better lives for so many. It is an honor for us to participate in this project.”
“Businesses used to look at projects like this through the lens of public safety — keep the kids busy in hopes they don’t get in trouble,” added Doug Neumann, executive director of the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance. “Today, many think about projects like this through the lens of future workforce pipeline — teach the kids skills and show them the advantages of this community, in hopes they take a job someday at an area company.
“This project works on so many levels,” he added. “It will strengthen the neighborhood, the school, the church and a future generation of workforce. And I think that’s why the Boys & Girls Club has seen such strong support from the business community for this project.”
Furthering club’s mission
The Boys & Girls Club’s services in five core program areas — character and leadership, education and career development, health and life skills, the arts, and sports, fitness and recreation – are designed to reinforce the mission of giving their clients the skills they need to succeed in the career and professional world.
The new center, Mr. Tursi said, will help the club further its mission in all five areas well into the future, and prepare its clients for that future in the process.
“It’s been great to have the partners we’ve had (with the service units), but it’s time for our kids to have something nice,” he said. “Not only is it going to provide more opportunity for our kids, but it’s going to provide our older kids more opportunities. I think it’s the next step in how Boys & Girls Club grows for the future. This is just the first step for us getting into bigger and better things. As much as going to college is a great thing, for many kids, it’s not really their aspiration. So, let’s find out what they can do and still be a productive person in our community.”