JPM: A Letter to the Community from the Jewish Federation

June 28, 2018 | Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit

It is now over two years since the Federation and Jewish Community Center announced the closing of the Jimmy Prentis Morris (JPM) facility in Oak Park. Closing JPM was an exceptionally difficult and painful decision, made necessary by the dire financial situation of the JCC and its potential impact on the community as a whole.

Regardless of the reasons, the decision was deeply upsetting to many of our community members. We also recognize that the lack of information over time—extending well beyond when we had expected the project to be completed—has been perplexing and frustrating. This is something we will do much better going forward, beginning with this statement.

Both personally and on behalf of the entire Federation, we want to sincerely acknowledge the concerns, sadness and anger of the patrons and supporters of the JPM facility. We know that, since its closure, you have been eagerly waiting for progress. The Federation staff and its volunteer leadership and supporters understand and share this frustration. In fact, many of those involved with this effort live in the area, and a number were active members of JPM.

Without question, the neighborhoods in Oak Park, Southfield, Huntington Woods and surrounding areas remain vital and essential parts of our overall community. Our commitment to this area goes back many decades, beginning with the coordinated effort to secure and maintain land for use by the Jewish community. In the 1990s, we launched the Neighborhood Project to help preserve the Jewish character of the area, providing families with home purchase and improvement loans. Recently, these areas have seen remarkable growth, and today they offer a Jewish experience that is extraordinarily rich and unique—drawing families from around the country. The A. Alfred Taubman Campus on 10 Mile Road remains an important anchor for Jewish life in the area.

None of this, of course, can assuage the ongoing concerns about the future of the JPM Facility. We can, as I said, offer better information—specifically an explanation of why this has taken so long, as well as a description of what we expect for the future.

The Process So Far

Previously, we conveyed how the JCC’s troubled balance sheet and substantial long-term debt impeded its ability to serve the community and affected its viability for the future. The Oak Park facility was losing approximately $1 million annually, while the West Bloomfield facility struggled to break even. Beyond this, the JCC financial crisis posed a threat to the welfare of our community. Over time, our communal resources were becoming depleted, potentially impacting money that would be needed by the broader community, including the elderly, families in need and other clients of our social service agencies.

Thus, the ultimate decision to close JPM was made not only to keep the JCC in business, but also to protect our most vulnerable populations. As we have said, this was just one of many steps that needed to be taken. Efforts are now underway to reduce the footprint and improve efficiency of the West Bloomfield facility, better aligning it with the mission of the organization today, along with a new emphasis on a “JCC without walls” model that will extend programming across all of metro Detroit.

In addition, we hoped to provide a more modern and cost-efficient facility in Oak Park that would continue to serve the community while being financially sustainable. We began looking for funding sources for this new facility as soon as the decision to close the old building was made. At the same time, the grassroots group of JPM supporters made a laudable effort to independently raise funds to keep the facility open, raising approximately $12,000. In accordance with the fundraising plan, these funds have been distributed in equal shares to Yad Ezra, Jewish Family Service and the Jewish Dental Clinic.

Eventually, we secured a large commitment from a generous private donor to build a new building. It was clear, however, that in order for the new facility to be successful it would need to be financially self-sustaining or we would soon find ourselves in the same situation. This set off a process of interviews with potential operators and tenants, with the hopes that a multi-use Jewish facility that housed offices as well as communal facilities and program providers, including the JCC, would be financially viable while serving the community. At the same time, we met with an architect and carefully considered all aspects of the proposed building, including the overall size, layout and function. We fully expected to break ground on the building this past summer, as was announced.

Bigger Issues

We discovered, as we approached the scheduled date of construction, that there were a number of significant challenges to consider before we began spending millions of dollars on the new building. The first was that balancing paying tenants with costly communal and programmatic spaces was much more difficult than expected. Even with paying tenants, we found that providing the facilities that many hoped for, such as an indoor swimming pool, remained prohibitively expensive. Simply putting up a new office building was not what the community wanted, and yet we could not find operators willing to commit to running fitness and other programmatic facilities due to the high cost.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, as we held discussions with a number of Jewish agencies and organizations that were considering moving into the new building, we realized that there were many unresolved questions regarding future real estate needs for our community that would directly impact this project. This is a time of significant changes in the demographics of our community, as well as in the economics of running a non-profit social service agency. If we don’t understand these trends clearly, we risk creating facilities that don’t fit the community’s current and future needs.

There are some difficult questions to consider: Do our agencies have the right facilities to deliver services today, and how might the concept of sharing space and other resources affect their ability to serve their customers in the future? Where is the Jewish population headed and what does this mean for the array of facilities we are considering? Could some of the more expensive facilities, such as a pool that offers same-gender swim hours, be better offered through public city resources?

As we consider these and other important questions, we are taking specific actions to better prepare for a significant investment in communal resources that will serve us for decades to come.

Looking Ahead

First, we are undertaking a new population study. Our last comprehensive study was in 2005 —before the financial crisis and subsequent recovery—and since then much has changed. We need a better picture of where Jews are living and how they’re engaging in Jewish life. We need to know how our community is aging and where young families are raising their kids. Results for the new population study will results are expected by September.

Second, we are implementing a collaborative assessment of our community’s institutional needs and resources. Many of our organizations, including congregations and organizations beyond the Federation’s partner agencies, confront tight budgets, expensive deferred maintenance backlogs and high overhead costs for underutilized facilities. This assessment, combined with the population study findings, will allow us to develop a forward-thinking strategy that alleviates these challenges and instead allows our organizations to focus on serving the needs of the community.

These initiatives will not be completed until the fall, and therefore we will not be able to announce any decisions on the proposed JPM facility until then. Again, we recognize that much time has already passed, and that this represents another long stretch of inactivity on the JPM site. The additional time, no matter how painful, is necessary in that it will allow us to make better decisions for the future of our community. The goal is not to put this off, but to do it right: Assessing, updating and right-sizing facilities across our entire metro Detroit community, including on both the Taubman and Applebaum campuses, will ensure that our agencies are able to offer programs and services in an effective and cost-efficient manner.

At the same time, we are confronting a number of other urgent issues affecting our community. One example is the teen mental health epidemic, reflected in the unprecedented number of Jewish teens struggling with depression and anxiety. The Jewish Federation is taking the lead role in coordinating community-wide awareness and outreach efforts to de-stigmatize mental health problems and create opportunities for teens and their families to get help. There are other critical initiatives for our growing population of older adults, for individuals with special needs, and a number of other vulnerable populations that are being affected by changes in our local and national economy.

We do not always move as quickly as many would hope, nor do we always get each decision right. Every decision that is made, however—and there have been many difficult ones in recent years—reflects the critical need to maintain the security and welfare of individuals across Jewish Detroit and to maintain the strength and vibrancy of our community for the future. This is our mission, and we remain incredibly proud of the Federation staff and cadre of volunteers who truly work tirelessly to make this a reality.

We are also grateful to the passionate community members who have shared their thoughts, their hopes and their frustrations. This undertaking is a community effort, and, as mentioned, the Federation is committed to increasing the transparency of the process. In that spirit, questions and comments can be sent to jewishfederation@jfmd.org. We will answer all inquiries as soon as possible.

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