©by Leo Adam Biga
As seen in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Omaha’s oldest social service agency closed earlier this year with a whimper, not a bang. The Wesley House Community Center, a United Methodist Church mission since 1872, has ended 139 years of service, confirmed Rev. Stephanie Ahlschwede, interim executive director and head of United Methodist Ministries in Omaha.
The agency’s two-acre, twin-building campus at 2001 North 35th St. will be sold, she says. And it’s unclear who will purchase it.
Wesley served the African-American community for the last half century. At its peak, it offered youth and adult programs and spun off a black-run radio station, a community bank, a credit union and a pair of economic development organizations.
But Wesley lost traction in the 1990s. Later, when management came under fire, primary funding support was pulled. By the early 2000s, Wesley barely hung on as a youth center. In 2005, Paul Bryant came on as executive director to shore up the nonprofit’s reputation and finances. He largely succeeded through the youth leadership academy he launched.
In October, Bryant tendered his resignation with the understanding Wesley would continue.
“Last year was our absolute best year at the Wesley House. Things were hitting on all cylinders,” he says, adding that the agency’s annual fundraising dinner and golf tournament were successful.
However, financial pressures remained. He says the academy struggled competing with larger, better-funded programs with more facilities. It scrambled just to meet operating costs. Besides, he says, “it was time to go, my work there was done. I felt a calling to take this work and expand it outside the walls of Wesley House into the schools.” He’s doing that under his Purpose Leading brand.
Bryant says he offered to remain through 2010 to assist the transition once a new executive director was hired. On Nov. 12, Ahlschwede was appointed. Bryant says he was then asked to clear out and disband the academy by Nov. 19.
Ahlschwede says she and the board intended to keep the center open, but closer examination revealed it wasn’t financially sustainable.
“The type of program Paul envisioned was much more difficult to fund than we realized,” she says. “You’ve got program costs to have things be adequately staffed and nurtured and tended, but you also have overhead, and the property itself comes with a significant amount of overhead because they’re big, old buildings.”
She says the board considered converting the site into an urban farm and food-justice campus, “until we realized the significance of the financial shortfall.”
Rev. Stephanie Ahlschwede
With Bryant — the center’s chief programmer and fundraiser — leaving to form his own nonprofit, the board soon decided to close the agency.
“They probably got a first-hand look at what it took to keep that thing afloat — I raised close to $2.5 million in the time I was there,” Bryant says.
Ahlschwede says she and the board concluded it was time to break the decades-old cycle of underfunding and revolving programs.
“We’ve been on a roller coaster here and at some point you can’t ignore it anymore,” she says.
She’s aware a legacy’s come to an end.
“It’s hard to end things and to say no to things,” she says. “When you talk to United Methodists who’ve been around about Wesley House, everyone sighs and is really sad because there’s been all these dreams and a long, rich history with many visionary and charismatic leaders, including Paul.
“It was very difficult. the board really struggled, because the dream and the reality weren’t matching up, and that is heartbreaking.”
Bryant learned of Wesley’s demise from The Reader.
“This is quite shocking to me it’s closed and it’s going to be sold,” he says. “It was so much more than a gym and swim program. In Omaha, at one time, it was the point agency for change.”
While the center received donations from Methodist congregations, even in outstate Nebraska, he says, “It really didn’t feel like we had the whole weight and support of the United Methodist Church behind it.”
Omaha Economic Development Corporation president Michael Maroney shares a heavy heart over the news of Wesley’s closing.
“It had meant so much over the years, particularly in the ’60s and ’70s, when it actually was doing unprecedented things,” says Maroney, who worked there on three occasions.
In a twist of fate, OEDC, which began at Wesley, is weighing a purchase agreement for the site. If OEDC decides to buy, Maroney says, “we would do the best we could to ensure it continues to add value to the community going forward, and no one knows exactly what that means. But we didn’t want to see an abandoned property or an inappropriate use. We wanted to make sure that whatever goes in there is hopefully embraced and supported by the community.”
Bryant and Ahlschwede express confidence in Maroney’s stewardship should OEDC proceed. The OEDC board is expected to decide before June.
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Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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