Closed for business: Demise of Contra Costa JCC comes suddenly, painfully

In a turn of events that has shocked the Bay Area Jewish community, the Contra Costa Jewish Community Center board of directors abruptly announced on Dec. 15 that the 35-year-old center was closing.

And just like that, by end of day on Dec. 16, the Contra Costa JCC had locked its doors for good.

The closure of the Walnut Creek institution meant more than two dozen staffers lost their jobs, and parents of the JCC’s nearly 80 preschoolers had to find other places for their children. Open arms were extended by several local entities with preschools, including Lafayette’s Temple Isaiah and Walnut Creek’s Congregation B’nai Shalom.

It also meant the end of the line for the JCC’s Millman Center, which offered adult day care and Alzheimer’s caregiver respite and support programs to about 15 seniors twice a week. All other JCC Jewish culture, camp and education programs were terminated, as well.

Jamie Hyams at CCJCC pool in 2008 photo/michael fox

Most likely, the six-acre property at 2071 Tice Valley Blvd. will be sold, officials said. There are no plans to file for bankruptcy.

Robert Rich, CCJCC board president, and Jamie Hyams, CCJCC executive director, both blamed the closure on lagging fundraising, declining membership (numbers were said to be in the hundreds), inadequate facilities and acute cash flow problems.

“It has been known for a very long time that the   Contra Costa JCC, as configured, did not have the revenue drivers in place to sustain operations and the campus,” said Hyams, who joined the JCC staff in 2007. “Thriving JCCs have three traditional revenue drivers: preschool, summer camps and fitness [center]. The CCJCC lacked the key, most lucrative component, fitness, which drives membership.”

Adjacent to the JCC stands the Tice Valley Gymnasium. Many JCC members use the gym, which is sometimes thought of as part of the JCC, but actually the city of Walnut Creek leased the land from the JCC. The gym will remain open and continue programs as scheduled. No revenue from the fitness center goes into JCC coffers.

“For many years the JCC has faced huge financial challenges, which through the efforts of staff, volunteers and donors we had been able to overcome,” Rich said. “We realized very recently that despite substantial efforts, we were not going to be able to reach our goals, at least not fast enough. Time ran out on us.”

The CCJCC had made many efforts to stabilize its long-term financial health. Three years ago, the Walnut Creek City Council consented to consider the JCC’s plans to develop an 80-unit condo complex next to the center, modified from an original plan to build 140 units.

However, the development — which JCC leaders had said would help them raise money for a planned multi-million-dollar expansion — never got under way. The plans included a new 5,000-square-foot facility with a new fitness center, year-round pool, glass lobby, expanded classroom space and an auditorium-banquet room.

Explained Hyams: “Neighborhood opposition to parts of the plan, the downturn in the economy, declining membership, a growing dependence on annual fundraising and constraints on staffing led to an inability to complete the reconfiguration.”

For most of its existence, the CCJCC had been a department of the Jewish Federation of the East Bay, but in April 2010 it incorporated as a separate 501(c)3 nonprofit with its own board of directors.

Around the time of the separation, the JCC secured two lines of credit from Scott Valley Bank totaling $1.2 million, one a line of credit for operational costs, the other labeled a construction loan to be used toward expenses for the projected remodel (altogether, the JCC borrowed less than $1 million against those lines of credit). Yreka-based Scott Valley Bank is a subsidiary of Learner Financial, which is based in Walnut Creek.

The money, officials said, was to allow the JCC to complete its separation from the federation, move ahead with planning and preconstruction-related costs of the capital project and provide some operational funding support.

“At the time we did the separation, it appeared there was a very strong case we would be able to thrive,” Rich said.

Seniors at the Millman Center photo/michael fox

The center’s total operating budget for the current fiscal year, which ends in June, was given by a JCC official as $2.3 million. According to a recent IRS filing, the JCC had net assets totaling $2.5 million, half of that in land value, the other half in the value of the building and other fixed assets.

Unfortunately, a CCJCC official said, there was insufficient cash to cover expenses of the operation.

Compounding the financial woes, Rich said the board had to contend with ongoing disagreement among some major donors as to whether the JCC should remain at its current site or perhaps move.

“It became apparent there were a number of impediments to the success of the capital campaign we hoped to pursue,” Rich said. “Those included divisions of opinion as to where the new JCC should be located. We also came to understand that without development of community consensus around the [location of the] new JCC, it was unlikely that the capital campaign we intended to pursue would succeed.”

The board decided to extend the timeline for the construction plans and the capital campaign until that issue was resolved.

In September 2011, after the bank learned the JCC board had decided to put off the campaign, it halted lending on the construction line of credit. Losing that funding lifeline came as a financial shock to the institution.

“We made efforts to persuade [the bank] to back off that decision,” Rich said, “and those failed. We were in rougher straits and had to move even faster.”

JCC leadership stepped up ongoing appeals for donations, but they did not bring in enough to keep the center running. The discussion shifted from “if” the center would close to “when.” Leaders began to hope simply for a soft landing.

That proved impossible as well, according to Rich. Presented with the stark reality of the situation, the board voted on Dec. 13 to close the center.

The decision reverberated across the Jewish community.

“While the JCC has had ongoing financial struggles over the years, federation leadership was surprised by the abruptness of the closure,” said Rabbi James Brandt, CEO of the Jewish Federation and the Jewish Community Foundation of the East Bay. “As recently as two months ago there was a communitywide meeting looking at how to strategize the JCC moving forward.”

Others in the community were stunned by the suddenness of the closure.

“It was planned very badly,” said Ivor Silver, a former board member and JCC donor for nearly 30 years. “The community at large was not approached to let people know there was a serious financial problem and that the doors could very well close.”

The closure also shocked and dismayed JCC staffers, such as Vanessa Lucero, who taught at the preschool for eight years. She said she prided herself on the school’s excellent reputation, which she and her colleagues tried to maintain despite frequent turnover of school directors and financial strain.

“We always felt that the center was struggling,” she said. ”Over the years we saw programs cut, funding cut. We just dealt with it because of our love for the children and the center.”

She and the school staff were called in to an emergency meeting Dec. 14, and were told the center would close two days later. According to Lucero, parents were notified of the closure that night via email.

Lucero said she has been offered a job at the Temple Isaiah preschool.

At least one preschool parent wants to fight to keep the JCC school going. Samantha Balboni has had two children in the preschool, including a daughter attending this year.

She said parents are in shock and “really, really angry. They should have come to us three months ago and said ‘We’re in serious trouble.’ We hope the Jewish community helps us put the school back together.”

Shoshana Eliahu, director of adult programs at the CCJCC, first heard about the closure at the afternoon meeting two days before the center shut down. Before that, she said she had heard no rumors of an impending closure.

“We knew there were financial straits and tough times,” Eliahu said, “but we never knew it was coming down. I’m very sad and a little angry because the board should have sent out communications to the community telling them we’re in such dire straits.”

The JCC’s adult nutrition program served hot meals to approximately 30 seniors twice a week, with food supplied until a few months ago by the Reutlinger Community for Jewish Living in Danville. “It created an environment for people to come together and meet socially,” Eliahu added.

Jan Corran, executive director at Reutlinger, said she is saddened by the JCC’s closure and will do what she can to help those stranded.

On Dec. 21, the JCC was to host more than 100 seniors for a special Chanukah lunch and celebration in Walnut Creek. Instead, thanks to an offer from Corran, the event was switched to Reutlinger, 15 miles down the road in Danville.

The CCJCC closure might remind some in the Jewish community of problems the JCC of the East Bay faced three years ago. A severe financial crisis took that Berkeley institution to the brink of closing. But today it is out of danger, and has  a newly opened branch in Oakland.

“For us, we really went back to our basics and did what we do well,” said Executive Director Sally Kauffman Flinchbaugh. “We have been growing from that, and not taking on any programs we cannot support. It’s really sad about [the CCJCC] and such a loss.”

The Contra Costa JCC was founded in 1976 and spent 27 years at its Tice Valley facility, where it drew members from throughout Contra Costa County, as well as from Alameda County cities as far away as Pleasanton and Livermore.

In addition to child care, camps and adult services, the JCC offered annual events such as the Jewish Book Festival; the most recent book festival, the 22nd annual, was co-presented last month by the CCJCC, the Jewish Federation of the East Bay and the Center for Jewish Living and Learning.

The federation and members of the JCC staff have been working together to respond to the immediate effects of the closure.

“We are working with Jewish Family and Children’s Services and Jewish Vocational Service to provide counseling and career counseling for staff laid off abruptly,” Brandt said. “We have worked with our synagogues and preschools in Contra Costa to find spots for the children. The response has been so heartening. The community is pulling together.”

He added that the federation has opened a help line for parents whose children have been displaced. The number is (510) 318-6438.

In addition, according to the Contra Costa Times, concerned parents have set up an email address (helpjcc

kids@gmail.com) for people to stay in touch, donate services and get information. Also, a Facebook page titled “CC JCC Supporters Give Thanks” has been started to collect memories.

One lingering problem: Some JCC preschool parents had paid through the next month; others through the end of the 2011-12 school year. As of the middle of this week, they had not been reimbursed.

“The JCC has been working in cooperation with other Jewish organizations and on its own to address the financial impact [on parents],” Rich said. “There were not sufficient funds immediately available to simply reimburse people. There are people of good will working hard to solve the problem quickly.”

One high-level JCC lay leader, who spoke to j. on the condition of anonymity, feels closure could have — and should have — been avoided.

“It’s not that there’s no money,” the person said. “We own the land. We had equity. There was money coming in [from the preschool]. Last June, we were happy because we  had made headway, and we were heading in the right direction. It’s not a board that didn’t pay attention.”

Added Rich: “No one on this board wanted to see the center close. But there were no viable solutions which could be implemented in the amount of time we had.”

Corran said the closure offered a hard lesson to the community.

“It points out the importance of monitoring our Jewish institutions and being aware how important a cohesive Jewish community is, so that we’re not up in arms when we lose something. It was a wake-up call for the entire Jewish community, to remind us how vulnerable we are and to consider our viability.”

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Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.