Members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians are seen celebrating St. Patrick’s Day at the Irish Center in West Mt. Airy in 1959, one year after its opening. After 56 years of providing cultural enrichment, Irish music and lots of fun, the Irish Center is literally in danger of closing because of a huge increase in their city taxes. (Photo courtesy of the Irish Center)

Members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians are seen celebrating St. Patrick’s Day at the Irish Center in West Mt. Airy in 1959, one year after its opening. After 56 years of providing cultural enrichment, Irish music and lots of fun, the Irish Center is literally in danger of closing because of a huge increase in their city taxes. (Photo courtesy of the Irish Center)

by Marita Krivda Poxon

Rumors had been circulating for many months about the financial difficulties that the Irish Center at 6815 Emlen St. in West Mt. Airy (also known as the Commodore Barry Club) continued to have ever since the City of Philadelphia raised the Irish Center’s property taxes in 2013. But while many suspected that the financial situation had gotten critical, few knew for sure how bad the financial situation really was until an email went out from Kathy McGee Burns on May 1 of this year.

Burns requested that interested stakeholders and other supporters of the Irish Center attend a meeting to put together a summer emergency plan to raise funds “to pay our taxes and keep our doors open.” Those in attendance were to form an Ad Hoc Committee to save the Irish Center. Her brief email sounded an alarm bell when she wrote, “I know we’re all busy or wanting to chill out over the summer, but wouldn’t it be awful if there was no place to come back to?” On May 6, the Center’s front dining room was packed with everyone anxious to know whether the Irish Center would really close its doors this summer. It has welcomed thousands since 1958 when two tavern keepers, Mickey Cavanaugh and Michael Scullion, acquired the rambling building in West Mt. Airy as the site for the new Commodore Barry Club! Leading the discussion were members of the Irish Center’s Board of Directors including Vince Gallagher (President), Kathy McGee Burns, Barney Boyce, Sean McMenamin, Bill Donahue, Ed and Mary Weideman, Mary Curren, Kevin Walker, Kerri Meenigh, Frank Hollingsworth and Lisa Maloney, attorney to the board.

Present were representatives of the county societies, the Philadelphia Ceili Society, friends of the Irish Center and several young people whose parents practically raised them at the Irish Center. All sat in a state of shock as the current dire financial reality emerged during the two-hour meeting.

Sean McMenamin proceeded to explain the devastating effect on the Center’s fiscal stability that recent tax bills have had. This tax hike came about as a result of city-wide property reassessments by the Philadelphia’s BRT (Board of Revision of Taxes), which really hit the Irish Center hard. McMenamin said that the Board hired a certified assessor who specialized in club buildings. With help from this assessor, an appeal was made which lowered the BRT’s initial inflated assessment. Along with the property tax hike, the Irish Center also has had an increase in the Business Use & Occupancy Tax. Initially the real estate tax bill when combined with the Use & Occupancy Tax bill was $60,000. However, with a favorable reassessment, the total is now $22,000, but this is still three times more than the $7,000 the Irish Center recently paid.

Irish step-dancers often entertain at the Irish Center in West Mt. Airy. (Photo by Tom Keenan)

Irish step-dancers often entertain at the Irish Center in West Mt. Airy. (Photo by Tom Keenan)

McMenamin spoke of the “perfect storm” of circumstances that hit the Center this winter, one of the worst winters in recent memory. This winter forced the Center to use its credit line to make ends meet. Not only did the property tax bill soar (along with the Business Use & Occupancy Tax bill), but also the heating bill went through the roof with oil heating costing $11,000 and gas heating in the ballroom costing $1,800. Because of the severe ice and snow storms, Tom Walsh, the Irish Center’s Manager, had to cancel many events that would have brought substantial rental and bar income.

Additionally, new city codes have required that expensive upgrades be made in the kitchen which include stainless steel exhaust hoods and fixtures. The Center has two years to complete these repairs and has already paid $25,000 to comply with these codes to keep the kitchen open for Shackamaxon Catering.

Few knew that the Irish Center had taken out a $160,000 mortgage from Bryn Mawr Trust 11 years ago to pay off past due Business Use & Occupancy Taxes and a $22,000 gas bill that resulted from many years of incorrect readings from a faulty meter. The mortgage also provided money to fund a 10-year capital improvement plan, including air-conditioning for the ballroom, new air-conditioning units throughout the Center, upgraded electrical wiring, a partial new roof and the installation of an elevator to make the Center handicapped-accessible. A fundraiser held in 2010 raised $20,000, which helped to pay for the elevator.

Despite the current gross income of between $220,000 and $240,000 in the past few years from rentals, the bar, balls, concerts and monthly payments from Shackamaxon Catering (their check pays the monthly mortgage), the Irish Center has had on average $15,000 deficits in the past few years. The current year, 2013-2014, has been so bad that the Irish Center has already borrowed $27,000 on its credit line. McMenamin emphasized: “The Irish Center would not survive into the future with such continued, heavy financial obligations.”

Kathy McGee Burns organized an Ad Hoc Committee to Save the Irish Center. In subsequent meetings, the Committee has begun work on an ambitious two-year plan to raise the funds to keep the doors open. Meanwhile the current Board will work on a long-range plan to make the Irish Center a tax-exempt 501 (c) (3) non-profit to promote Irish Arts & Culture in Philadelphia. This tax-exempt structure will allow the Center to apply for grants from foundations and receive tax-exempt donations. Sean McMenamin thought that a target amount for the two-year campaign should be $100,000.

The summer kick-off fundraising campaign began in mid-July. Letters will be mailed out to solicit donations from the entire Irish Center community. All will be invited on Sept. 28 to an all-day celebration, “The Gathering.” The plan also includes extensive use of social media as well as the more traditional communication and marketing tools. On Facebook the Commodore Barry Irish Center Fund Raising Campaign site has been set up and has had nearly 1,000 hits already. The address for this new Facebook page is www.facebook.com/commodorebarryirishcenterfundraising.

The Flickr site, The Irish Center Commodore Barry Club, can be viewed at www.flickr.com/photos/124714062@N03/.

A revamped Irish Center website is in the works now with links to online donations pledged through PayPal and a new site GoFundMe (recently successfully used by the Philadelphia Ceili group). More details will be forthcoming on how to donate. This information will be posted on the Irish Center’s webpage as well as the Facebook page.

For more information, visit www.irishcenter.com or call the Center at 215-843-8051.

* Reprinted, with permission, from Irish Edition July 2014 (www.irishedition.com). Marita Krivda Poxon is the author of “Irish Philadelphia,” one of Arcadia Publishing Company’s “Images of America” series.

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