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Fighting for the Dunbar Center

Will this beloved institution in Springfield’s Mason Square survive?

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Thursday, August 14, 2014
Stephanie Kraft Photo

The Dunbar Community Center, the heart of Springfield’s Mason Square neighborhood, is under siege. The Center, through which the YMCA runs dozens of programs for local residents of all ages, is threatened with foreclosure by the current holder of its mortgage, Republic Financial Corp. of Greenwood Village, Colorado.

The Dunbar Center, which this year celebrates its 100th anniversary, is the oldest and largest community center in the predominantly African-American neighborhood of Mason Square. It’s named for the late nineteenth-century African-American poet, fiction writer and journalist Paul Laurence Dunbar of Dayton, Ohio, an internationally famous man of letters and advocate for people of color, who was a friend of Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois. As an institution devoted to bettering the conditions and enriching the culture of people in a certain neighborhood or locality, the Dunbar Center might be seen as related to late nineteenth-century institutions such as settlement houses, or, to emphasize the cultural side, the People’s Institute of Northampton.

Basketball has been a leading sport at the Dunbar Center. UMass Minutemen basketball coach Derek Kellogg got his start there, as did others who went on to win basketball scholarships to college and, in some cases, to become local and national stars. But more important than the fanfare accorded the Dunbar’s champions have been the bonds of community the Center has cemented in a deprived area. Children receive tutoring, mentoring and after-school care; parents can work out while their children participate in those programs, and then leave with them as families. The Center has enriched life in Mason Square with the Dunbar Players theater company, boxing and dance programs, and special events, including, in recent years, the Salmonberry Days festival.

 

The Center’s current financial troubles began when, early in the millennium, it embarked on an expansion that cost several million dollars. “At that time, the old gym was not in good condition. It needed upgrades,” recalled Rev. Talbert Swan, pastor of Spring of Hope Church of God in Christ, who is now chairman of the board of directors of the Center. “There was a high number of young people that the Center was serving, so a larger gym and more space was what it needed at the time. No one could have forecast at that time the economic downturn, so they faced a financial crisis. If things were now as they were in 2003, they never would have faced that. There are a number of nonprofits that didn’t make it.”

Because of the expansion project, the Dunbar Center borrowed $1.6 million, giving a mortgage to Fleet Bank. As successor to Fleet, Bank of America later acquired the mortgage. Last December Bank of America sold the Dunbar mortgage together with other mortgages to US Acquisition Property XXXVII LLC, an arm of Republic Financial.

To add to the confusion, Republic recently put up the mortgage as collateral in a deal with Pacific Western Bank of Los Angeles, but records indicate that Republic is still the official holder. The Advocate reached Republic by telephone and was directed to speak with marketing director Tom Kennedy, but Kennedy did not respond to our calls.

At the time Bank of America sold the mortgage, which by then still had about $1 million owing, the Dunbar Center, the Y and U.S. Rep. Richard Neal of Springfield were in negotiations with Bank of America aimed at staving off foreclosure, according to Swan.

“Unbeknownst to the Congressman or to us, they bundled the mortgage and sold it to this outfit in Colorado,” Swan told the Advocate. “For a bank that depended on taxpayer dollars to bail it out, it has showed little compassion for individuals or institutions that have fallen into crisis.”

As well as serving as chairman of the board of the Dunbar Center, Swan is also head of the Springfield area chapter of the NAACP. He pointed out that Bank of America has made overtures of good will toward the NAACP nationally, and has subscribed to the NAACP’s principles of good lending, which stipulate that lenders will cooperate with borrowers to avoid foreclosure. Because they sold off the Dunbar Center mortgage, he said, “Now they can say, we didn’t foreclose on a cash-strapped community center in a minority urban neighborhood.”

Through Mark Pipitone, a spokesman at its headquarters in Charlotte, N.C., Bank of America rejected that way of characterizing the situation. “We are not a party to this matter,” Pipitone wrote in an e-mail following a telephone conversation. “This commercial loan, along with others, was purchased by another lender in December, 2013, and that lender is now working with the Dunbar Community Center to consider solutions.

“Bank of America has a long history of investments in this community. We recognize the important work of the Dunbar Community Center, and when we held this loan, we worked together for years with Dunbar, and later the YMCA, in an attempt to reach a mutually satisfactory resolution to the Community Center’s significant commercial debt obligations. Unfortunately, those efforts were unsuccessful.”

 

If the Dunbar Center loses its spacious building at 33 Oak Street, the result will be “a social justice issue and a public safety issue,” said Kirk Smith, president of the YMCA of Greater Springfield. “I can tell you without any research that if that building was to close, you’re talking about catastrophic consequences,” Smith said. “You’re talking about upwards of 3,500 people we can no longer serve. You’re talking about young people we’ll be putting back out on the street. If you put those people back out on the street with no place to go, you put them in harm’s way.”

Smith added that the city of Springfield has supported the Dunbar Center in many ways, including providing gang prevention funding that has helped finance programs at the Dunbar Center as well as other YMCA facilities. The Y, he said, puts $100,000 a year of its revenues from more profitable sites into the Dunbar Center.

The YMCA “is interested in securing and owning” the Dunbar Center, Smith said, and does not intend to give up even if foreclosure takes place. If the property goes to auction, he said, the Y will work with other interests in the city to have the Center purchased by people who will maintain its character and programs. “We’re committed to Mason Square and that property,” he insisted.

The Y and Dunbar, Inc., the owner of the building, have been in negotiations with Republic, and have offered the company $500,000 for the Center property. So far the offer has not been accepted. Swan said he sees no advantage to Republic in foreclosing on the building.

“We’re baffled to think of what someone is going to use the property for,” he said. “If you keep the building as is, you’re going to have to use it for a community center or a church. There’s no guarantee that if they go to auction, they’re going to get more than the Y offered to pay.”

Swan said that the Springfield area NAACP has some deposits with Bank of America, and that at the group’s next meeting he will recommend that they move them to another bank.•

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