The decision to close the Thomas Merton Center's longtime Garfield headquarters and rent another space nearby was made too hastily, board members publicly acknowledged on April 25.
"The process stunk, and I wish we had been more on top of things and had been a better board," new board-member Jonah McAllister-Erickson said at a public meeting about the future of the Center, an outspoken advocacy group for peace and social justice. Board members say the old headquarters, at 5125 Penn Ave., was falling apart, and a quick move was necessary. But no one is sure where to go next.
"Even today I feel very unprepared to come here," McAllister-Erickson told 40 mostly longtime Center members gathered at East Liberty Presbyterian Church. "We don't have any answers."
McAllister-Erickson said the 38-year-old group had only $11,000 in the bank, once the cost of repairing the roof of the Center-owned thrift store was deducted.
The store earns an average of $2,000 a month. But building costs alone -- including utilities, mortgage payments on the old headquarters and rent at a new building a few yards away -- total $2,700 a month. Overall, the center's monthly budget ran between $11,000 and $12,000. Most of that was spent on salaries and benefits for the center's three full-time staffers.
Which is why the Center terminated its full-time staff this spring.
Another new board member, Casey Capitolo, blamed the organization's predicament partly on the Center's concentration on protesting last year's G-20 international summit here.
But at least one laid-off staff member believes the board made things worse by moving into a new location while still paying for the old one. "We were paying for rent before we were even moving into the space" in February, said Melissa Minnich, who'd been the Merton Center communications director until she was laid off April 16. "I think that is why they had trouble paying my paycheck and the rest of the staff's."
The situation isn't completely dire. In addition to the thrift store, the center collects dues from its 450 members, as well as proceeds from such fundraisers as the New People Awards, set for May 18. The Center would need 1,200 members to re-hire its staff, board President Michael Drohan said. That's more than the organization's peak membership of 1,100 -- a level of support it hasn't enjoyed in a decade.
Those in attendance agreed that selling the old building will help remedy the financial headaches. A coalition of three groups that used space in the old building -- the prison reading program Book 'Em, Pittsburgh Indymedia and the Big Idea Bookstore -- have hired an inspector and made an offer to buy it, according to Book 'Em's Rose Anderson.
However, after the meeting, McAllister-Erickson said that numerous details concerning the proposed purchase -- including a sales price -- were still up in the air. Although the center is talking with the group, he said, the board has hired its own real-estate broker and attorney to help consider other options.
The gathering drew many suggestions for the Center's future: Focus on a few specific social-justice concerns, from jobs to health care; or concentrate on organizing future anti-war marches. "Rebrand" the Center away from the largely unknown Merton. Move to Oakland, where the youngest potential new members are concentrated -- although some members felt that recent internal conflicts had already pushed young people away.
"We may have crossed the financial Rubicon, and The Merton Center may not survive," concluded McAllister-Erickson. "Having a great vision and a mission statement still doesn't pay the bills. For us to have something to offer [new members], we need to get our house in order."