CARBONDALE, Ill. (AP) — Once a hub of activity in Carbondale’s northeast neighborhood, the 12,000-square-foot Eurma C. Hayes Center now stands mostly vacant and in disrepair. Now, a newly appointed board and executive director are working to revive the one-time community staple.
When it was built in the historically Black neighborhood in 1974, the center was designed to provide essential services and a public meeting place for Carbondale residents. But today, the building that once housed a medical clinic, literacy program and daycare has only a few tenants and appears closed off to residents. “There are ‘no trespassing’ signs up right now,” longtime resident Danettra Anderson said. “You have ‘no trespassing’ signs up on a place that is supposed to be a community building.”
The aging building is in need of major renovations, but fundraising efforts have stalled. The organization’s nonprofit status has lapsed with both the state and the federal government, and attempts to cover its overhead expenses through rent have been unsuccessful as rising rent costs have pushed tenants out.
The organization’s leadership completely turned over in October when its longtime executive director resigned and its entire board, except for one member, either resigned or was removed. Despite its tumultuous past, newly appointed executive director Bob Wills believes he and his new board can help the center thrive once again.
About two dozen carloads of people gathered in the center’s parking lot last month to hear Wills’ plan to restore it. The key to future success? Support and involvement from the community. “We have to have a buy-in from you,” Wills told community members through a bullhorn. “You are the key to helping make this happen.”
The Eurma C. Hayes Center, named after a longtime community activist, was constructed at 441 E. Willow St. with support from the Model Cities program — a nationwide project backed by President Lyndon B. Johnson as part of his “unconditional war on poverty.” The center sought to provide critical social, medical and educational services to the northeast side of Carbondale, which was where Black residents were once segregated.
Once the program dissolved, the City of Carbondale took control of the building and operated it until 2010. The city wanted to either sell the building or donate it to a not-for-profit organization due to municipal budget constraints. This is when Eurma C. Hayes Center Inc. was formed, and it bought the center from the city for $10.
Corene McDaniel, who served as the center’s executive director from 2012 to about 2015, and her husband, Milton, who volunteered as a maintenance worker at the center, said the fiscal challenges started after the city passed the building to the nonprofit group. They described former members on the center’s board as ambitious, but not versed enough in the nonprofit and business sectors to successfully bring in more tenants and further develop the endeavor.
Corene McDaniel said a lack of experience, combined with high utility bills due to an outdated HVAC system and piling renovation costs, have led to the bulk of the community center’s challenges. “It was difficult to get people to rent space in the facility. That building needs a lot of work,” she said. “The work that should have been done, in my opinion, by the city, was not done. But, it was quite costly.”
Alicia Schatteman, director of the Center for Nonprofit and NGO Studies at Northern Illinois University, said nonprofit groups that have a physical footprint, like the Eurma C. Hayes Center, must possess a robust fundraising team and strategy to be able to provide services to their communities at little to no cost.
“Usually building overheads are raised through other means and specifically, that’s philanthropy — whether that’s grants or donations, that’s where those costs are covered, they aren’t covered through programs,” she said. “Buildings are expensive, so that’s why you need a pretty robust fundraising team when you have such a large facility.”
Otherwise, Schatteman said, it can be difficult to raise enough money to cover a building’s overhead costs. The Eurma C. Hayes Center has seen many of those challenges as its governing organization has largely relied on donations and tenant rent to cover overhead expenses. In 2012, donors gave more than $4,000 to the center to help cover overdue electricity bills; a then-advisory committeeman said a lack of tenants contributed to the center’s fiscal challenges.
McDaniel said the Southern Region Early Childhood Program’s rent costs helped cover a large portion of the building’s overhead utility costs. When the program moved to the Southern Illinois University campus in 2015, the center was sent scrambling to fill the financial gap.
Lisa Brown, who has served as director of the Southern Region Early Childhood Program for 30 years, said while the program was paying rent and other costs at Eurma C. Hayes Center, SIU offered free rent, utilities and maintenance. She said her program continues to provide accessible early childhood education.
“In the end, it all worked out very well,” Brown said. “Families were continuing to be served by the program, they were just located here at SIU.”
Before the I Can Read! program stopped operating at the center, its executive director sought additional funding from the city, saying its rent had nearly tripled in a year’s span. Now, only a few tenants remain in the building, including an outreach office for the Women’s Center and a constituent office for U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, but they have not operated at the center for the past several months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The center’s nonprofit status was stripped by the Internal Revenue Service in 2015 after the group failed to submit required financial information for three consecutive years. But, the center had only received its 501(c)(3) approval less than a year prior.
Most Illinois charities are also bound by the “Solicitation for Charity Act,” which is a state law that requires charitable organizations to file a registration with the state attorney general’s office if they are soliciting donations. The Eurma C. Hayes Center registered in 2011, according to a spokesperson from the state office. But, the organization did not inform the office of an address change, so its registration was canceled.
The center cannot be found in the Illinois Attorney General’s Charitable Trust database, the ProPublica Nonprofit Explorer, nor the Guidestar database, which is a service that specializes in reporting on U.S.-based nonprofits.
Despite losing its nonprofit status, the board sought to raise $10,000 for the rehabilitation of the building in 2017, but only raised about $2,000. The fundraiser website claimed donations would be tax deductible, but the organization did not have an active state or federal nonprofit designation at the time.
At an Oct. 16 board meeting, Ronald Manis, a Carbondale-based accountant who has worked with the organization, said it is unknown if anyone attempted to claim a donation to the center as a tax deduction while the organization’s nonprofit status had lapsed. Board members involved in the 2017 fundraiser declined to speak to The Southern or could not be reached for comment.
In the Oct. 16 meeting, then-board member Kendall Woods asked Manis if there were any questions the organization had committed fraud, to which the accountant replied there was not, adding “there’s nothing that I’ve seen that has benefited one individual” in relation to the center’s finances.
Manis confirmed the center’s nonprofit status lapsed with the federal government for about four or five years. But, he said, the center is now up-to-date on all federal and state filings and its board is waiting to hear back about its submitted materials. The Illinois Attorney General’s office confirmed on Oct. 20 that the organization recently submitted paperwork in an attempt to update its charitable status.
Wills, the new director, said in November that due to a misfiling of state paperwork, the center’s nonprofit application was returned, but he expected it to be resolved soon. Troubles with organizational paperwork aren’t uncommon in the nonprofit sector, Schatteman said, because required filings can often slip through the cracks as nonprofit boards transition through board members.
For roughly the last five years, Carlton Smith, who is also on the Carbondale Community School District 95 board, was the center’s executive director and board chairman. Smith declined multiple interview requests with The Southern for this story and resigned in October, two days after appointing his successor, Wills. He declined another interview request after his resignation, saying he was no longer the executive director and would not provide comment.
Wills said Smith had resigned voluntarily because his term was up, as outlined in the center’s guiding documents, and the delay in doing so was due to the pandemic. Smith and the majority of the other recently resigned and removed board members are now serving in advisory positions to the board, Wills said, adding he sees them as valuable resources due to their wealth of knowledge surrounding the center.
But at least one former board member who was vocal about the center’s problems was not welcome in the mix. Nathan Colombo, who was removed from the board in October after serving a little more than a year, said he is not serving on the advisory board. Colombo said he was not specifically told why he was removed from the board, but said he believes it was because he was critical of how the center was being run.
In an attempt to remedy the center’s precarious financial situation, Wills said he has tapped into his network of businesspeople to serve on the center’s board. Among those now serving on the board are a Ph.D., a lawyer, and others with backgrounds in business and finance.
While many of the new board members do not live in Carbondale, Wills said all but one has ties to Carbondale through Attucks High School — where Black students attended before desegregation — of which Wills also is an alumnus. He did not provide any further details about who is serving on the board.
Since taking the helm, Wills and his new board have rewritten the organization’s bylaws. He said the previous version was “outdated” and “useless” but did not provide a copy of the updated version.
After graduating from Attucks High School, Wills pursued a career in transportation and returned to Southern Illinois after working in the industry for the past several decades. He also has experience working with nonprofit organizations, serving as the chairman for The 100 Black Men of Alton.
Deiajion Nichols (upper right), 14, watches as a basket he tossed sinks in on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, at the Tyler Young Jr. Estates in Carbondale. The housing complex is across the street from the Eurma C. Hayes Center, a longtime community hub in northeast Carbondale.
While he did not offer specific details, Wills said he is going to run the nonprofit center “like a business.” The newly appointed executive director said he wants to ensure the building’s overhead costs, like utility bills and insurance expenses, are covered.
The mission of the Eurma C. Hayes Center is, in part, to “support and provide the unrepresented communities and populations with socio-economic resources and opportunities, higher quality education, superior healthcare and excellent childcare services,” according to the 2017 version of the organization’s bylaws.
That mission was historically met by providing lower cost or free services to the community. When asked if the center would uphold that precedent, Wills said “there are some things you can do,” but the low-cost or free options were available because the city government was providing financial support to the center, and that changed when it turned the building over.
“That’s a question I want to close into,” Wills said regarding the center’s mission, adding he doesn’t want to rule out any possibilities of partnerships with businesses. “We will take a look at that and see where we go with that. We have a lot of space to offer.”
Wills’ plan for success largely relies on bringing tenants into the building and exploring various routes of financial support, like GoFundMe fundraisers and federal grants. When community members at a Nov. 14 public meeting asked about the center being a possible housing site for various business ventures, he replied there is “no bad idea.”
“If you have a business or you know someone that has a business that wants to come in there, we can talk to them about that before we open the building,” he said. “There is nothing that we should rule out, I don’t care how far-fetched your idea is.”
Aside from stabilizing the center’s fiscal situation, Wills said he has met with numerous local and state officials to discuss ways to move the center forward. One of those efforts, he said, was working to develop a partnership with the Midwest Food Bank in Normal to help start a food pantry for the community center, which he said would be up and running by February 2021.
While officials at Midwest Food Bank confirmed they were starting a partnership with 100 Black Men for food distribution in Alton, they said at the time they were unaware of specific details regarding a partnership with the Eurma C. Hayes Center.
Wills said he is also working with the Carbondale Police Department in hopes of creating a substation at the center and a related youth center to help deter crime in the neighborhood. He said having a police presence at the building will do just that, and help build a sense of security for the center’s tenants while fostering positive relationships between law enforcement and community members.
“We want to develop relationships and take away that fear that the police are out to get you and all that stuff,” Wills said. “We’re going to make sure that people understand the police is totally (there) to help.”
Without the center in full swing, Anderson, longtime northeast Carbondale resident, believes there is something missing in the neighborhood. “I feel that without the community center, there’s a disconnect,” she said. “A lot of people have moved in. Nobody really knows each other. People aren’t as friendly because they don’t have that location where they can go to make connections.”
Wills’ first step in moving the center forward was to gather a group of people to help clean out the building. Armed with masks, gloves and donated cleaning supplies, over a dozen community members responded to the executive director’s request last month and helped scrub floors, clear brush and throw out old furniture.
“It’s amazing that everyone has come out to volunteer,” Woods, an advisory board member, said. He recalled people coming in and out of the medical clinic and neighborhood youth participating in programming at the center when it first opened.
“There was a sense of togetherness in the community at that time,” Woods said. “That’s what we need to bring back so some of the negative things associated with the northeast section of Carbondale disappear.”
Gary Williams, Carbondale’s city manager, said city officials would also like to see the center revitalized and have offered support through the years. In 2015, the city provided matching funds to the organization to help with building renovations. In addition, he said, they have provided some pro bono maintenance like tree and overgrowth removal.
“We’ve provided numerous leads over the years and were instrumental in securing Sen. Duckworth as a tenant,” Williams said, adding he hopes there is a renewal of activity “so it becomes a true community center for northeast Carbondale and the greater community.”
While there have been challenges at the center throughout the years, Margaret Nesbitt, the director of the I Can Read! literacy program, said it is important to look toward the future. “I think we need to think about what we need, rather than what we had, because it’s a new day,” she said, adding the center should be there to serve and enrich the community as a whole.
Eurma C. Hayes, who died 50 years ago last January, was devoted to giving back to her community and had a “passion and dream” of opening a center that would help countless friends, neighbors and community members, according to her biography. Her family doesn’t want to see that legacy of helping others forgotten.
“We want to see the building flourish,” said Kori Hayes, Eurma Hayes’ granddaughter. “They need to know who this woman is that has the name on the building — we want our grandmother to be remembered.”
Source: The (Carbondale) Southern Illinoisan, https://bit.ly/37OiVGW