Clubs' Bottom-Line Gain Is D.C. Kids' Loss

The popular new Boys &  Girls Club in Manassas marks its parent charity's shift of focus toward the suburbs.
The popular new Boys & Girls Club in Manassas marks its parent charity's shift of focus toward the suburbs. (By Len Spoden For The Washington Post)
By Marc Fisher
Sunday, April 29, 2007

Just six years ago, when Michael Jordan was the guest of honor at the Boys & Girls Clubs' Eastern Branch on Capitol Hill, the brass of the organization couldn't be more proud of the spiffed-up building, spanking-new computer lab, freshly renovated gym and the hundreds of kids who were getting a second chance because of the club.

That was before the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington decided that the grass -- and donations from fat cats -- might be decidedly greener in the suburbs than in tired old city neighborhoods.

Last week, the Boys & Girls Clubs announced plans to sell off four D.C. clubs, shuttering the 70-year-old Eastern Branch, almost certainly closing the Jelleff Branch in Georgetown/Glover Park -- the only club in the city that makes money -- and seeking development deals that would include new clubs to replace facilities in Columbia Heights and Congress Heights.

Suddenly, the Eastern Branch, which the Boys & Girls Clubs eagerly touted to me in 2001 as a shining symbol of how it was reaching at-risk kids, is a decrepit, unsalvageable relic of a time before gentrification, a place that's not needed anymore because so many affluent whites have moved into an area that had been mostly poor and black.

What nonsense. Literally across the street from the Eastern Branch, I went door-to-door last year with church volunteers delivering food to families who routinely run out of cash and food stamps by mid-month. Yes, some rowhouses there sell for a half-million more than they did a decade ago, and yes, some families have been priced out of the area. But the neighborhood the Eastern Branch serves is still majority black, majority poor and teeming with kids who could use a boost.

So why is the Boys & Girls Clubs turning its back on large parts of Washington and focusing on Prince George's, Fairfax and other suburbs? A great many kids in need live in places that don't yet have clubs -- new facilities in Manassas and Gaithersburg are among the most popular clubs -- but the real issue here is real estate.

"What's really essential for us is to serve as many children as possible that need us," says Will Gunn, president of the clubs. "And a valuable asset we have is the real estate we have in certain areas."

It's all about the Benjamins, folks. Enter a group called Venture Philanthropy Partners, founded by Washington area tech moguls Mark Warner (the former Virginia governor), Raul Fernandez and Mario Morino, who recruited like-minded rich people to invest in charities that work with poor children. The investor donates big money to organizations willing to run themselves like a sleek, bottom-line-oriented business. Venture agreed to invest $3.5 million in the Boys & Girls Clubs after advising the charity to "ensure the long-term financial sustainability of the organization" by changing its priorities to "derive the maximum financial benefit from its real estate assets," as a report by the investment group puts it.

Translation: Sell off city clubs that sit on land that would make developers salivate.

The Eastern Branch sits on 17th Street SE near rowhouses that have shot up in value. As a result, Gunn says, there are only 298 children living within a mile of the club whose family income is under 200 percent of the federal poverty line. Contrast that with 4,100 such children living near the club across the Anacostia River in Southeast.

The Jelleff club is a four-acre complex with a gym, field, pool and parking lot, just off Wisconsin Avenue in the Georgetown Historic District. Gunn says that property would sell for upwards of $20 million, but Jelleff's many defenders argue that fantasies of condo development would almost surely be dashed because the club is subject to historic preservation rules, abuts National Park Service land and lies on top of the city's main aqueduct. Develop that.

Like many club leaders, Denis James, who has been on the Jelleff board for 24 years, says the clubs' new focus ignores the success Jelleff has had in breaking through Washington's racial and economic divides, bringing together kids from all sections of the city.

"There are so few places to play in this city, so little open land," he says. "The clubs see their future marketplace as Prince George's County; they just want to get the money and get out of the city. We're viewed as the country-club Boys & Girls Club, but Jelleff is truly a melting pot of kids from all over."

Another Jelleff board member, Melinda Roth, echoes a complaint made by many longtime volunteers, saying the decisions to sell off D.C. clubs were made in a secretive process that excluded those who use the facilities.

"The clubs are supposed to be a community haven, open to everyone," Roth says. "Jelleff is the most racially, economically diverse club we have. What the clubs are saying now is that as areas re-gentrify, we don't need to be there. As neighborhoods change, do you pack your bags and leave?"

© 2007 The Washington Post Company