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cba looks to smith baker future

The Sun (Lowell, MA)
February 14, 2016
Author: Grant Welker, gwelker@lowellsun.com

(photo courtesy of the Lowell Sun)

LOWELL -- Yun-Ju Choi was working for the Boston Foundation in donor services several years ago when she visited Lowell and came upon the Smith Baker Center.

The former church across from Pollard Memorial Library on Merrimack Street struck Choi as a beautiful space, even though it had been vacant for years and was showing wear and tear.

Choi recalled the visit recently, now having the responsibility of bringing the Smith Baker Center back to life. The executive director of the Coalition for a Better Acre, Choi must navigate public process and try to rally donors.

"We want this to be a community project," she said in a recent interview. [See the full interview here.]

The coalition has cleared the first hurdle, having been approved by the City Council in January for the city to sell the Smith Baker Center -- which the coalition hopes to rechristen with a name honoring writer Jack Kerouac -- for $300,000. That price will be reimbursed to the coalition when renovations are completed.

Now, Choi and the coalition need to raise enough money through public grants and private donations to cover much of the projected $16.5 million in renovation costs.

Fundraising and revenue-generating possibilities include renting out the planned commercial-grade kitchen for restaurant start-ups. Choi also hopes to create an endowment that can cover operational costs.

Seeking donations is rarely easy, and the coalition will be fighting for donations along with other agencies. But Lowell is an "amazingly generous community," said Michael Gallagher, a Lowell resident who has a law practice downtown.

Gallagher knows first-hand, having helped lead the ArtUp program, in which Lowell artists sell their work, with half the proceeds going to the Lowell Community Health Center. The pieces of art were also donated to the center.

The health center also relied heavily on private donations for its new space on Jackson Street. Gallagher compared the projects to one another, in terms of their community benefits and ability to turn old, underutilized buildings into new uses.

"Both visions involve access -- for all Lowellians. In the case of the Smith-Baker Center, it's access to quality cultural and community programming," he said. "The Smith Baker re-development plan is a very exciting development for the city, one that could really advance the ball in support of the city's campaign to make Lowell a cultural Mecca."

Bruce Robinson, chairman of the board of directors for the Lowell Community Health Center, helped lead the center's $5 million fundraising drive for its Jackson Street building, raising the money in only a few years.

"It was a tremendous challenge, first and foremost, because the health center had never asked anyone for a dime, in its whole existence," he said, adding that the center had no donor database and hadn't really told its story to the community.

Donors were mainly area residents but also former patients who moved out of the area, and organizations that helped the health center reach its goal, Robinson said. "People will open themselves up, especially if they understand the mission."

George Duncan, a founder of Enterprise Bank, has also become familiar with the area's philanthropic abilities as a former president of the Greater Lowell Community Foundation.

"I know that people are very generous in the community when it comes to Lowell General Hospital, the Lowell Community Health Center, the Merrimack Repertory Theater," he said. "The community always comes through for something like this."

Duncan praised the niche the Smith Baker Center would fill, and its planned use of the Jack Kerouac name to attract visitors. "It has tremendous potential," he said.

Making the Smith Baker Center a useful part of the city again might be the biggest challenge the CBA has faced. But it won't be the most expensive project: that title goes to the North Canal housing development. In all, the coalition has spent $80 million on its property along Moody Street.

A residential building that opened last year on Gorham Street cost $8 million. The coalition has also developed housing in Haverhill, but the Smith Baker Center is a return to its neighborhood base in the Acre. 

"This is where our heart is," Choi said. "This is where we want to stay."