Facility Turnaround in Detroit Helps Nonprofit Focus on “The Right Work at the Right Time in the Right Place” February 16, 2022

Located 14 miles west of downtown Detroit in the city’s Cody Rouge neighborhood, the St. Suzanne Cody Rouge Community Resource Center (SSCRCRC) is a 40,000-square-foot facility that’s home to five permanent nonprofit tenants, 10 additional organizations that use the space on a part-time but recurring basis to carry out their missions, and a multitude of community groups that hold meetings at the facility when needed.

Together, they’re addressing a full spectrum of needs identified through formal and informal community engagement, many of which revolve around children in the neighborhood and their families. And because of the SSCRCRC, they have a quality facility that supports their work while contributing to the vibrancy of the neighborhood itself.

Just five years ago, that would have been difficult to imagine.

A community asset at a crossroads

The SSCRCRC facility was built in 1947 as an elementary school for St. Suzanne – Our Lady Gate of Heaven parish, which still owns the building. Generations of children attended school there, including Steve Wasko, a lifelong member of the parish who now serves as the Executive Director of the SSCRCRC. By 2002, changing neighborhood demographics and declining enrollment led the parish to close the school and begin assessing its options for the facility.

In a Nutshell

What: An overview of how a financial feasibility analysis helped establish a viable model for a former parish elementary school to be converted into a community resource center that serves as a hub for nonprofit services in Detroit’s Cody Rouge neighborhood.
Sector: Youth services
Location: Detroit, MI (Cody Rouge)
Size: 40,000 square feet
IFF Support: Financial feasibility analysis
IFF Staff Lead: Robin Toewe, Director of Real Estate Solutions – Michigan
100% occupancy in the facility’s 24 classrooms and 3 multipurpose spaces, helping the community resource center become financially sustainable and enabling approximately 20,000 people to use the space for community-driven work and to access services in the first year after a new business model for the facility was established.

Not wanting it to deteriorate and the community to lose an asset, the parish leased the facility to successive charter schools, the second of which relocated elsewhere in 2008. While these arrangements kept the building occupied, they provided limited benefits for all residents of the neighborhood.

“We would look across the street in 3:30 in the afternoon, and the doors would be locked, the lights would be off, and all of the cars would be leaving for the day,” recalls Wasko. “Our parish mission statement calls for us to serve the needs of our faith community and our neighborhood community, and we weren’t accomplishing that with the facility.”

Around the same time, The Skillman Foundation was leaning into a new funding strategy focused on six Detroit neighborhoods, including Cody Rouge. After becoming familiar with the model – which called for $100 million in grant funding to ensure that children in priority neighborhoods were safe, healthy, well educated, and prepared for adulthood – the parish recognized an opportunity for its facility to play a larger role in the wellbeing of the neighborhood by serving as a community resource center.

With limited capacity to manage its day-to-day operations, the parish turned to a local human services nonprofit to serve as the master tenant for the community center – responsible for subletting space to additional nonprofits providing services needed in the community, overseeing building maintenance as the property manager, and operating the center while also serving its own clients. The parish’s vision for a central location in the community where Cody Rouge residents could take part in activities and access resources was realized after Skillman provided the nonprofit with a long-term grant to open the center.

“If you drove by on a Thursday night at 9pm, you’d see cars parked everywhere,” says Wasko. “There were basketball games being played and a whole range of other activities. It was wonderful to see.”

Because the Skillman grant was time-limited by the 10-year window for its Good Neighborhoods Initiative, however, the long-term viability of the community center rested on the master tenant’s ability to attract and keep paying tenants in the building while handling the operational responsibilities of keeping the 40,000-square-foot facility running smoothly.

This presented challenges, as it would for many nonprofits, since those responsibilities had nothing to do with the organization’s expertise providing services like housing and employment counseling to members of the community. When grant funding ceased at the end of the Skillman initiative, the facility had not yet become sustainable, and the nonprofit operating the facility could no longer afford to run the community center.

Devising a new approach

Hoping to keep the doors open, the parish approached Skillman with a request for transitional funding while it stepped into an active role operating the community center for the first time. In addition to providing the requested funding, Skillman connected Wasko – who had by then volunteered to serve as a part-time executive director for the community center – with IFF to work on a financial feasibility analysis to map a plan for the facility that would ensure its long-term survival.

Taking findings from past community engagement efforts about services needed in the community into account, IFF’s real estate team devised an approach to run the facility that provided new ways for the community to use the space. Rather than relying only on full-time tenants to populate the community center, the model called for a combination of standard leases, part-time leases akin to coworking agreements, and rentals by the hour to accommodate community groups in the facility’s gym and cafeteria.

Paired with a facility assessment to determine maintenance and renovation needs, the analysis provided the parish with a detailed guide to attract organizations providing services like early childhood education, youth development, and after-school programs, among others.

With IFF’s help, we looked at different scenarios and, based on our priorities and the community’s priorities, were able to find a way to monetize the facility while providing flexibility to nonprofits in need of space.

“The value of that guidance was monetarily less than the grant we received to keep the community center open, but it was the most significant piece of the equation in getting us to where we are today,” says Wasko. “With IFF’s help, we looked at different scenarios and, based on our priorities and the community’s priorities, were able to find a way to monetize the facility while providing flexibility to nonprofits in need of space. It all seems obvious now, but it certainly wasn’t at the time.”

While establishing itself as a nonprofit independent of the parish focused solely on running the facility and coordinating services provided there, SSCRCRC set out to execute the plan. Within a year, the facility was fully leased, proving the viability of the model and providing the organization with a solid foundation upon which it has continued to build.

Catalyzing community development

Since attaining nonprofit status, SSCRCRC has successfully pursued a variety of grant opportunities that have enabled the organization to establish after-school programs, STEAM camps for children, and other enrichment activities that supplement services provided by other organizations renting space in the facility. At the same time, the organization has focused on ensuring the 75-year-old facility will be able to meet a diverse set of community needs in years to come.

It’s very rewarding to be on the ground doing this community-based work and seeing the implications of systems planning play out in front of you. It feels like we’re doing the right work at the right time in the right place.

Largely with the help of volunteers and local students, the SSCRCRC facility has been improved by upgrading building systems to improve the functionality of the space, making changes that help drive down operating costs (like installing more than 800 energy efficient LED fixtures throughout the building), and investing in environmental sustainability with projects like diverting stormwater runoff.

Most recently, the organization built a 900-square-foot, WiFi-enabled classroom outdoors that exemplifies how the facility continues to evolve to best serve the needs of the community. Since being constructed to create a safe venue for people to gather during the pandemic, the outdoor space has allowed a charter school tenant to continue in-person instruction, enabled the SSCRCRC to provide after-school STEAM programming, early childhood education programs, workshops, and forums, and hosted a multitude of community events, including a Detroit mayoral and city council debate.

With a sustainable business model for the SSCRCRC in place and the long-term viability of the facility no longer in doubt, it’s also serving as an anchor for additional investments in the Cody Rouge neighborhood. Across the five-acre St. Suzanne campus from the SSCRCRC, Trinity Health has engaged IFF’s real estate team to assess new uses for a long-vacant former convent. About a half mile away from the community center, the healthcare system is in the process of creating a “healthy village” complete with affordable housing, a health center, and an early childhood education center that IFF is partnering with Trinity Health to develop.

“It’s very rewarding to be on the ground doing this community-based work and seeing the implications of systems planning play out in front of you,” Wasko says. “It feels like we’re doing the right work at the right time in the right place.”

Learn about additional nonprofit facility projects IFF’s real estate team in Michigan has supported