By Neil Cosgrove
As the Thomas Merton Center (TMC) prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2022, the Center’s Board of Directors and Project leaders have begun a close and careful examination of what TMC’s next 50 years might look like.
“We recognize the importance of the Thomas Merton Center, as we look to its future,” says TMC Board President Shernell Smith. “We’re at a critical juncture in that we need to develop a strategic plan. We’ve thought strategically in the past, but not really long-term.”
The Board hopes to complete that strategic plan by this summer, a necessary first step in creating the information and guidance required to put the Center on a firm financial footing. “We need to ask what our membership will look like, our future donors, our new Cornerstone Sustainers, who have been the fundamental pillars of the Center, along with the general membership,” Smith added. “Who will be the next generation of members, of our Board of Directors, of staff?”
A strategic plan will also guide Board decisions as it seeks to resolve pressing facility issues.
The Merton Center currently owns one building, 5123 Penn Avenue, which houses the East End Community Thrift Store, a TMC project commonly known as “Thrifty.” This building is in need of significant renovation. In fact, a study by the Hayes Design Group that was completed last summer estimated possible contractual work in repairs could cost up to $400,000.
A couple of doors down the street, 5129 Penn has been the Merton Center’s home since 2011, with a meeting room, offices, and another TMC project, Book ‘Em, occupying the building’s basement. The Center rents this space from the building’s owner, Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation, and a recently signed lease ensures we can stay at this location until December, 2021. It is important to note that BGC has allowed us to remain in our space at rents much below market value, and that generosity is apparent in our most recent lease as well.
However, Bloomfield-Garfield is seeking to divest itself of all its commercial buildings over the next two years, according to Rick Swartz, its Executive Director, who has also informed the Merton Center it hopes to sell our location (5129 Penn) by the summer of 2021. Consequently, over the next 12 to 18 months TMC will be seeking a new home for the Center itself, and for either some or all the projects it currently houses (Thrifty, Book ‘Em, and Pittsburghers for Public Transit). “We anticipate our future space will be much more costly,” Executive Director Gabriel McMorland observed.
Since its founding in 1972 the Thomas Merton Center has evolved into a vital and far-reaching presence within Pittsburgh’s activist community. The Center moved from the South Side into the Garfield neighborhood in 1984. Thrifty has occupied its current location since 1994. Throughout that time, TMC has owed much of its existence to the volunteer labor and generous financial support of its membership.
As in the past, the Center’s Board and staff will be relying, in the coming months, on the broad network of expertise and contacts that has developed around TMC over the years. “We need some more time and more minds to address our facility needs,” said McMorland. “We’d love to hear from people about what would make the TMC space a useful community resource to them.”
“We could use a lot more help in researching a new space. It could be a new building, either bought, rented, or donated, or a shared space in a larger complex. The building we own requires a lot of repairs. Does anyone own or know of a contracting company that might be in a position to donate labor?”
Board President Smith placed the Director’s call for help in the larger context of strategic planning: “The search for a new home allows us to expand the conversations that have been happening in silos. We want the voices of the full membership to be heard.”
“We can’t continue to be a welcoming, sharing impactful community resource without everyone’s participation,” McMorland added. “This moment calls upon all of our imaginative spirits and practical talents, and we welcome you with complete gratitude.”
Neil Cosgrove is a member of the NewPeople editorial collective and the Merton Center board.
NewPeople Newspaper VOL. 50 No. 3. April, 2020. All rights reserved.