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

The Washington Post Sunday - - Metro - MARC FISHER

ust 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?”

E-mail: mar­c­fisher@wash­


The pop­u­lar new Boys & Girls Club in Manas­sas marks its par­ent char­ity’s shift of fo­cus to­ward the sub­urbs.


The East­ern Branch of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Wash­ing­ton, shown in the 1950s, is set to be shut­tered.

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