A major gay community center in Atlanta is a great idea, but can’t come at the expense of existing organizations, several activists discussed at an April 22 meeting.

Atlanta activists debate need for ‘first-class’ gay community center

Attendees expressed support for the concept of a “first class” center in Atlanta, but stressed there is also the need to support the Phillip Rush Center which already provides space and resources to numerous LGBT organizations.

Realtor Barb Rowland organized Thursday’s meeting with Justin Ziegler, executive director of the Atlanta Executive Network. About 20 people attended the discussion at Mixx, a gay bar on Piedmont at Ansley.

With MEGA Family Project, which rents space at the Rush Center on DeKalb Avenue, facing having to shut its doors if it doesn’t raise approximately $2,000 by the end of the month, and other non-profits including Atlanta Pride struggling to meet their annual budgets, some attendees felt that money should be funneled to these groups already in existence rather than start a capital campaign for a new facility.

“Look at the criticism HRC [the Human Rights Campaign] gets because of its fancy building [in Washington, D.C.] — a lot of people are angry because so much money goes to the building rather than to resources,” said Kathy Kelley, executive director of MEGA Family Project.

Rowland said she had spoken with wealthy local residents who wanted to invest in a gay community center similar to ones in Chicago, New York and San Francisco. A proposed budget for such a new facility in Atlanta is $22 million, she said.

“The saying, ‘Build it and they will come’ — there is some truth to that,” Rowland said. “There are some very monied people here who want to invest in something to make a big splash.”

Nearly everyone agreed a community center to house organizations and programs and provide services to the LGBT community is a great idea. How to do that, however, remains to be seen.

Anne Barr, founder of the Decatur Women’s Sports League, said she would love to see a large community center in Atlanta.

“We have to be the leaders of the South,” she said.

A community center would attract more LGBT people to Atlanta and to Georgia and provide a safe space for those people who don’t feel safe elsewhere, she added.

“I think we’re paying all this money in all these different directions to rent facilities, if we could put it together we could own it. I’m excited,” Barr said after the meeting.

Building bridges

Others brought up the fact that Atlanta’s gay community is divided into different groups. If there was a large community center where everyone could congregate and come together, bridges could be built between different groups.

But the idea of building a community center in Atlanta is one that has been attempted before several times and never worked out, pointed out Rev. Paul Turner of Gentle Spirit Christian Church of Atlanta.

“To be honest, this is the third or fourth meeting I’ve been to where we’ve taken a shot at this,” said Turner, who has lived in Atlanta for 15 years.

“I think before long it gets to push and shove because the leadership really doesn’t know what the community wants and needs,” he added. “Sometimes we don’t utilize the resources we have. I think we have to be intentional of literally going out to the community and asking what they need.”

Kiki Carr, founder of the queer arts and music fest MondoHomo, pointed out that no people of color were at the meeting last night and it would be important to get feedback from various communities on what and if a community center is needed.

“We need to ask people what they want. When I hear ‘first class,’ I hear something in Midtown for rich, white gay men,” Carr said.

‘Incubator’ at Rush Center

Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, and Linda Ellis, executive director of the Atlanta Lesbian Health Initiative, discussed what they are attempting to do at the Rush Center. It is the office space for their organizations and MEGA Family Project, but it also provides meeting space for dozens of other organizations and groups, such as the Black Lesbians Cancer Survivors Group, Weight Watchers, AID Atlanta’s Evolution Program and the Atlanta Pride Committee.

When the Rush Center was opened last year, it was intentionally not called a community center but rather is described as an “incubator.” Plans are in the works to expand the center if possible when new space comes open in the building.

The facility currently has 2,500 square feet and is nearly at capacity, Graham said. Another space may come open in the building soon, which could add another approximate 1,000 square feet to the center. But rent for that space would be approximately $1,500 a month and Graham said the goal is to have at least nine months of funding secured before expanding, or about $15,000.

Needs assessment

Ziegler suggested that the community try to raise $100,000 – enough to fund the Rush Center expansion for five years at a cost of about $90,000, with $10,000 to spend on assessing whether a larger scale center is needed, and what people would want from such a center.

A mission of any community center is to bridge gaps and bring people from different communities together. Graham and Ellis said the Rush Center is doing that organically and right now they hope to be able to add a cultural space for such events as small art shows.

Rowland said the vision of the donors she has talked to is very different than the ideas of those behind the Rush Center, however.

“I could go to 10 different fundraisers this weekend, but there is no focus to it,” she said. “But if we have the money go toward a gay community center, there is a focus. But we need to do it from a groundswell of support.”

Kelley said asking non-profit groups to raise funds for a community center when the economy is the way it is not likely to happen.

“Most nonprofits can barely keep their doors open. There is no way they can divert their attention to fundraise for this,” Kelley said.

Kelley also noted that she worked on the campaign to fight the state constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage in 2004 and only $100,000 was raised.

“And this was the biggest attack our community faced,” she said.

Rowland said after the meeting that while she hoped for a more definitive plan of action, she is optimistic the community will rally behind a professional needs assessment to be taken to gauge what the entire Atlanta LGBT community wants.

“It’s time for us to do that,” she said.