The Community House's next 100 years
The Community House (TCH) in Birmingham turned 100 years old in 2023, a magnificent milestone for any organization, but a truly Herculean one for a community center located in the heart of downtown Birmingham which was created to be a non-partisan, non-sectarian, non-exclusive and non-profit community center.
Located at 380 S. Bates Street, west of Shain Park and just south of the Baldwin Public Library, and bound by W. Merrill, S. Bates, Townsend, and S. Chester streets. According to its website, “This nonprofit has been home to tens of thousands of residents, dozens of charities, hundreds of classes, thousands of private and public events, and some of life's most memorable experiences. To this day, we welcome young and old from near and far to start their experience right here at their second home at the heart of the community...The Community House.”
Where TCH goes in the next 100 years has been a challenge for officials at the organization, especially when fulfilling its mission has become very costly and the need for revenue, from donations and special events, has been and continues to be a major concern. That is why we were pleased to hear that TCH leaders have put on hold their most recent plans for expanding its physical structure..
We were concerned by a proposal that CEO William Seklar, along with noted Birmingham architect Victor Saroki, presented to the Birmingham Planning Board to significantly expand the facility to four stories – and when that met with resistance from the city and neighbors, to three stories – and to include squash courts and a full fitness facility, and in addition to meeting the needs of seniors, making the organization more relevant to those aged 20-40 years old. There has also been talk of expanded services and collaborations with other organizations in the area, such as Corewell Hospital, formally Beaumont Hospital.
A rezoning request for the site, which they said would better accommodate the expansion, was unanimously denied by the city's planning board in October.
A recent decision to suspend expansion plans “for the time being” is the wisest decision they have made.
As The Community House takes time to reassess what comes next, we offer some thoughts.
We don't pretend to have all the answers and we certainly understand the tough task facing The Community House to balance the financial needs in the coming years while not losing the vision laid out by its original founders to service those families in Birmingham, Bloomfield and the larger community who can best benefit from its gathering spaces, educational offerings, programs and services.
Further, we offer a cautionary note – another local nonprofit, the Jewish Community Center of West Bloomfield, developed a state-of-the-art fitness center, built squash courts and a pool, and competed with area health clubs for members. Other newer and better fitness centers opened, and they shuttered the health club in September 2020. To date, nothing has filled the spaces.
As officials at The Community House review their next move, they must keep in mind that there is a fine line that must not be crossed in terms of a non-profit organization competing with tax-paying, brick-and-mortar businesses offering the same services.
Lastly, TCH used to be the central meeting place for smaller non-profit groups, a number of which have moved their gatherings to other locations in the general area when charges were announced in recent years for use of the TCH facility. There must be some way to mend fences with those groups which have found other meeting places to bring them back to TCH as the place for local groups to gather. While it may not add much to the bottom line, the importance of community groups having an emotional tie to The Community House cannot be overstated..
It's important that The Community House survives and we look forward to seeing future plans that may come from this period of reassessment.