by Kevin Dicciani
The Irish Center, situated in the Commodore Barry Club at 6815 Emlen St., was not immune to the financial difficulties brought on by the City of Philadelphia’s 2013 property tax reassessment. The center saw its real estate and Use and Occupancy tax bills jump from a total of $7,000 to $60,000, a spike that has threatened its 56-year existence.
“This is more than just a building to house Irish culture,” said Ed Weideman, vice president of the center. “This is home.”
That struggle was outlined in last week’s Local Life piece by Maria Krivda Poxon.
But the tax struggle is not all that’s facing the half-century-old club. The tax trouble is one part of a larger problem the club faces in finding a way to transform itself and stay relevant in a time when ethnic clubs aren’t as prominent as they once were. That future includes many possibilites – from arts and culture to 501(c)3 status.
After Ireland’s Great Famine in the 1840s, multiple societies from Ireland – the Mayo, the Sons and Daughters of Derry, the Tyrone, the Galway, the Donegal, among others – immigrated to America. More than 100 years later, in 1958, the Irish Center was founded by two tavern keepers and established further by those societies.
Since then, the center has welcomed thousands of next generation Irish who wished to retain and celebrate their cultural identity. It is home to pipers, dancers, musicians, teachers of Irish language and balls sponsored by the Irish county societies.
Recently, the center has become a key venue for the West Mt. Airy community and for various local organizations. Some of those organizations include the Philadelphia Swing Dance Society, the Philadelphia Folksong Society and the Circle of Friends. They regularly hold meetings, events, weddings and bar mitzvahs.
“A good portion of our rentals are not Irish-based,” Weideman said. “They’re neighborhoods, schools and communities.”
“We are part of a very diverse, ethnic community,” said Sean McMenamin, a member of the center’s board of directors. “They are very supportive of us and us of them. We’re not just an Irish center – we’re also a good neighbor.”
McMenamin said that the financial troubles stemmed from the city classifying the center as a commercial operation. Its gross income is between $220,000 and $240,000, which comes from rentals, the bar, balls and concerts.
“In every sense of the word we’re not a commercial operation,” McMenamin said. “We don’t have the income to operate as such.”
“They look at our center as a commercial entity, like it’s a public domain, like a bar or a restaurant,” Weideman continued. “It’s really not operating that way and it never did.”
McMenamin said the center has managed to stay in business with help from the Irish government, the unions, fund-raisers and donations. With very little salaries and 70 percent of the staff as volunteers, tradesman will donate their time and skills, free of charge, to see that the building and the center’s history is preserved.
“Without volunteers,” McMenamin said, “there is no way we’re still here.”
After this year’s severe winter, the center not only had to cancel many events, but its oil and gas bills soared to more than $11,000. Additionally, the center was hit with new city codes that required a slew of expensive upgrades. The upgrades include a stainless steel exhaust hood and various fixtures for the kitchen, for which the center has already paid $25,000, as well as new air conditioners, upgraded electrical wiring, a partial new roof and the installation of an elevator. McMenamin said that it was these circumstances that created the problem the center faces today.
With the help of an assessor, the center was able to negotiate with the city to lower its $60,000 property tax to $22,000 – still three times as much as it previously paid. Although the price is lower, McMenamin said, the center cannot sustain the taxes long into the future, and therefore it needs an alternative plan lest it cease to exist.
The center is currently working with a law firm to reconfigure the center as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit to become the Commodore Barry Arts and Culture Center. McMenamin said the center has, optimistically, at least two years until it reaches the legal requirements.
“The light at the end of the tunnel is we come out of this as a center that’s available for funding and outside donations,” McMenamin said. “We do have a plan. These things don’t happen overnight. We’ve been meeting with lawyers and others and – we even had to go through Homeland Security – so this is a process. But, as a cultural center, we do need to be available for funding – it’s the only way we’re going to survive.”
Weideman followed those comments by saying the center has, since it discovered its financial issues, done everything in its grasp to ensure the federal requirements.
“We’ve done our research,” Weideman said. “We’ve done our due diligence. We know where we were, and we know what position we were in before we reached out to these law firms and these people to get us where we need to be.
“We knew this process going in. We know what steps we need to take to get where we want to be. We’ve planted ourselves and rooted ourselves in that vein to progress in that direction.”
McMenamin said there is a 10-year strategy for the Commodore Barry Arts and Culture Center that would turn it into an all-encompassing art center with theater, art, music and dance.
“We want to be a big part of our community and even to the bigger communities within the five counties of Pennsylvania, and I’m optimistic we will,” he said.
Save the Irish Center
An ad hoc committee, organized by Kathy McGee Burns, has begun working on a two-year plan to raise the money needed to keep the Irish Center open, with a target of $100,000. The first phase of the campaign began on July 19 and will conclude on Sept. 28 with an event called “The Gathering” – a grand finale celebration. McMenamin said while the campaign is in progress, the board is pursuing 501(c)(3) status. He said the center has raised 42 percent of the first year’s goal.