Community House wrestles with uncertain future

New director sought to lead historic nonprofit

By: Mary Beth Almond | Rochester Post | Published February 27, 2018

 For over 40 years, the Rochester Community House has opened its doors to the public, serving as a hub for classes, events and celebrations of all types.

For over 40 years, the Rochester Community House has opened its doors to the public, serving as a hub for classes, events and celebrations of all types.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

ROCHESTER — With an aging building and a retiring longtime executive director with no successor in sight, many in the community are concerned about the future of the Rochester Community House.

A host of such people attended the Rochester City Council meeting Feb. 12, hoping to dispel a rumor that the building would be replaced with condominiums and to let the council know how important the Community House is to many in the greater Rochester area.

Mayor Rob Ray quickly addressed such concerns at the beginning of the meeting.

“There has never, ever been a discussion about building condos in the park. So, to anyone that was concerned about that — I think this is a relatively small town. We all love the city. That’s why we are all here. We all share news when we think it’s relevant. But I would encourage you, because we are so forthcoming and transparent, that if you ever hear a piece of news that seems unsettling or very surprising that you reach out and contact anyone here on council or any member of administration. We will certainly be able to tell you anything that we do know and discourage those that would spread unsubstantiated rumors, because it certainly doesn’t do anything good to support the city,” he said.

Although those in attendance were glad to learn that the gossip was hearsay, Bill Berklich, who serves on the organization’s board, said the Community House is still grappling with an uncertain future.

Community roots
For over 40 years, the Rochester Community House has opened its doors to the public, serving as a hub for classes, events and celebrations of all types.

Longtime Director Mary Lee Kowalczyk was instrumental in starting the Rochester Community House by first approaching the city of Rochester about using the 1934 Avon Pavilion — a 30-by-60-foot log building with a fieldstone fireplace in what is now Rochester Municipal Park — as a meeting place for local service groups.

After a successful fundraising campaign and a building renovation, the Rochester Community House opened on July 23, 1975.

“During her tenure and under her guidance, the pavilion was remodeled, renovated and expanded into the facility we enjoy today. She has been instrumental in keeping us going as a group and keeping that whole thing updated and modified,” Berklich said.

Over the years, the pavilion has undergone multiple updates, renovations and expansions with both public and private funding. The first project, which was completed in April 2005 for $400,000, expanded the bathrooms and added a lobby, a deck and a bride’s room to the nonprofit center. The second phase, which was completed in May 2007 for about $670,000, added a new wing — including the 60- to 70-person Shelton Room in honor of the second-generation owner of Shelton-Pontiac-Buick-GMC in Rochester Hills, Russ Shelton. It also added a deck, storage rooms, additional offices, a second entrance for caterers, an elevator and a basement. As part of the second phase of the project, an existing storage room was remodeled and used as a small meeting room, boasting windows that overlook the park.

Today the Community House serves thousands of residents and businesses annually through its support of 30 local nonprofits, enrichment and education classes, children’s luncheons, youth leadership efforts, and room rentals for weddings, reunions, fundraisers, business functions and other events.

The Community House also offers the “Benny’s Kitchen” pet care pantry; the Community Kitchen program, which distributes bags of emergency groceries to people in need from its back door each week; and the Sunday Dinner program, sponsored by local residents and organizations, which allows low-income families and seniors to be served restaurant-style in the Community House each month.

Berklich said the Community Kitchen has served over 17,000 hot meals and has provided thousands of bags of emergency food since 2009. He also noted that through the nonprofit’s Friends of the Community House network and supported charities and nonprofits, the center is directly and indirectly responsible for well over 15,000 hours of community service annually in and around Rochester.

“Thousands of people visit the Community House every month,” Berklich said. “We have a lot of people, a lot of traffic.”  

Community support
During public comment, many in the community talked about how important the Community House is to them.

Carol Greco, a former manager of the Community House’s pantry program, said the nonprofit is exactly what its name implies: a community house for people to enjoy and even receive assistance.

“It offers the greater community sponsored dinners for seniors and low-income families, and food for those in need at the pantry. Yes, the affluent city of Rochester has many, many people who would be affected if these services were taken away. There may be other organizations who offer similar help, but the Rochester Community House has been giving and sharing by having the doors open to all as their house,” she said. “I ask that the city do all that they can to keep this historical building serving the people in the surrounding Rochester area.”

Greco’s son, Jim Greco, echoed his mother’s comments. He said he’s been volunteering at the Community House for the past five years, helping with the monthly Sunday Dinner for those in need.

“Do whatever you can, because it is a historical place. Keep it going. There’s a lot of people that love coming there and volunteering,” he said.

Penny Chrissman — who served on the Rochester City Council for 15 years — said the Community House has been “a wonderful asset” for the greater Rochester area. Chrisman said she was concerned because although the city charter says officials may not sell park property without a vote of the people, the city can lease the property without a vote of the people.

“That is very concerning because of different rumors, some of them not true. I know that there was one that was true about joining forces with another nonprofit, the PCCA. I don’t think there is room for both functions in that one building, and I will do everything in my power to keep that Community House operating for the whole community. … This city has always supported it, and I beg you to continue supporting it,” she said.

Ray said Paint Creek Center for the Arts staff wrote a letter to the City Council expressing an interest in sharing the building, but he said the request has not been discussed on council.

“It’s public record that PCCA has expressed interest in relocating. It is certainly to their own doing. Anyone could send a letter to the city asking to lease the building. … Other than accepting the letter from PCCA, there has not been any formal discussion or serious consideration. If anything, deferment and preference has been given to the Community House to vet out what improvements could be made and how we can make it better,” he said. “That is essentially where it stands.”

PCCA Executive Director Tami Salisbury confirmed that the art center reached out to both the Community House and the city — since  the building is a city-owned property — to express an interest in a partnership between the two organizations several months ago. Under the proposed partnership, she said, the PCCA would renovate the building and the two organizations would share the space.

“Our goal was to share the space, and we were assured there was no room to do that,” she said.

Combating an uncertain future
After 30 years on the job, Community House Executive Director Mary Lee Kowalczyk has announced that she is retiring.

“I have worked for Rochester Community House for 30 years. I am 82 years old, and it is time for a change,” Kowalczyk said in an email.

“She is retiring, unfortunately, and leaving us with a big hole in our business,” Berklich confirmed. “We really appreciate the effort she has put in … but she has agreed to stay on for a little while longer to help us find the right replacement and get that person trained and in line.”

Since her announcement in the spring of 2017, Berklich said the organization has been having trouble finding a successor.

“We’ve had a couple of people we thought were good matches but who have withdrawn because of what is perceived as, maybe, an instability,” he said.

The board of directors, according to Berklich, hopes to secure a new executive director with a strong background and experience in nonprofits, operations, fundraising, building management, personnel management, volunteer management, and strong skills in hospitality and catering.

“We are looking for someone who is probably a retiree,” he said. “We want someone who wants to give back to the community. It’s going to have to be someone who really wants to do this job.”

Those interested are asked to apply by sending a hand- or U.S. mail-delivered résumé and cover letter to Board President John Cadieux, Rochester Community House Inc., 816 Ludlow Ave., Rochester, MI 48307.

“Some might ask why we aren’t accepting email. It’s because we aren’t really set up to do that. We are a little behind the times in some of the technology areas,” Berklich admitted.

In addition to outdated technology, the Community House is grappling with an aging facility.

During public comment, Chrissman said that for all of the years she served on council, officials budgeted to maintain and keep up the Community House.

“I don’t know what has happened in the years since and why this has become such a problem —for maintaining and for the upkeep of the Community House — but I surely do not want to see anything happen to the Community House. It’s a wonderful thing,” she said.

On average, City Manager Blaine Wing said, the city has been spending about $25,000 annually for at least the past three years on building maintenance at the Community House; however, he said that with any building over 40 years old, additional maintenance is required.

Wing said the structure itself has many deficiencies, which he classified as “nearing emergency kind of components.”

“There are almost 17 different things — from the roof to creatures potentially breaching into the building. In the past, we have had emergencies. The water heater has broke; we’ve had doors that are falling off,” he said.

In the fall, the City Council approved $25,000 for various building repairs to be made during this fiscal year, through June 30. Some repairs were made during the summer and fall of 2017, and Wing said others will be made this spring. He said recent repairs include replacement of a water heater and some exterior structural repairs.

City officials have estimated the needed building repairs to cost approximately $500,000, with replacing the roof on the nearly 10,000-square-foot building being one of the larger expenses, according to Wing.

The City Council, according to Wing, plans to have a policy discussion in March to see where officials stand on the maintenance issues of the Community House, Dinosaur Hill Nature Preserve and the Rochester Area Neighborhood House Clothes Closet — all city-owned buildings.

In the meantime, Berklich appealed to the City Council to create a temporary joint committee and select representatives to discuss building repairs, a successor agreement and other select items of interest to help get the nonprofit moving in the right direction.

“We can get together as a group and talk about how we can straighten things out to make sure that the building, and we, are going in the correct direction for what the city wants,” he said.

Wing said he, along with City Council members Ben Giovanelli and Nancy Salvia, plan to meet with Community House representatives in early March to discuss the needed building repairs, a successor agreement and other items of interest. He said their recommendations will be presented at the May 14 City Council meeting.

For more information, contact the Rochester Community House, 816 Ludlow Ave., at (248) 651-0622 or visit