Admittedly, it’s a bad look.
Actually, it’s a terrible look: the city pushing a tiny charitable nonprofit out the door and into nonexistence, including shutting down a project that annually provides toys and other Christmas gifts to children in need.
Project Share began in 1969, started by Beverly Richmond and Hazel Thresher. Its goal is to operate a small thrift store, raising money through the sale of donated items, to purchase Christmas gifts for area children in need, distributed each December in Operation Santa Claus. Thresher died in 2014. Richmond, who passed away in 2017, once said of the project: “Kids are no different, rich or poor. The children don’t even know that their Christmas presents came from us, and we want to keep it that way.” The idea has always been to keep a low profile in terms of that charitable effort, something Richmond’s daughter Tammy Catozzi of Swanzey, who now runs it, has maintained.
News that City Manager Elizabeth Dragon, upon finding out the city has allowed Project Share to operate free of charge for decades in the basement of the city’s recreation center, set out to strike a formal agreement with the operators — including setting a monthly $600 rent Catozzi says can’t be met, meaning the entire project would have to shut down — seems particularly harsh. Add to this Dragon’s statement that she doesn’t even know what the city might do with the space, and she came off as some combination of the Grinch, Ebenezer Scrooge and the ruthless banker Mr. Potter in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Happy golden anniversary, Project Share: Now get out!
Except it’s not really that, and Dragon is actually being pretty reasonable. Her job, as the city’s chief executive, is to look out for its interests. The thing the city manager said she found “concerning” about the thrift store’s situation isn’t, she told listeners on WKBK radio Tuesday, about the rent. Sure, the city would like to have its expenses covered. That includes utilities — water, sewer, electricity and heat — plus trash and snow removal. But the real issue is the lack of a formal agreement.
“It’s not so much about the money,” Dragon said. “Six hundred dollars is a small amount [in the context of the city’s budget], really. … It’s about fairness.”
Specifically, it’s about treating Project Share the same as the city treats other nonprofits. No other group is essentially getting in-kind city assistance on what Dragon called “a handshake deal not done in public.” They all request financial assistance from the City Council.
And therein lies a solution.
The outrage driven by news the store would likely close because of the rent demand has caught the attention of city councilors, who have already put the issue on the agenda of next Thursday’s Finance, Organization and Personnel Committee meeting. Dragon says the store won’t be asked to pay any rent until at least the end of January in any case, though organizers have had to obtain insurance, so there ought to be time for an agreement to be worked out. The most likely scenario, if councilors see a value in the operation that’s worthy of subsidizing, is that rent will be established in the deal, which the council may reduce or forgive, via a formal request, as next year’s budget is hammered out.
That’s the process other nonprofit groups follow each year, and the fairest way to proceed for Project Share. The small operation, relying on the volunteer efforts of a few dedicated workers, provides a valuable service every holiday season — in addition to offering inexpensive clothing and more to those with limited resources throughout the year. But those benefits are no more worthy than the meals provided by The Community Kitchen, the beds provided by the Hundred Nights shelter or any other efforts the city assists.
What started out sounding like an egregiously callous reaction on the part of city government may actually end up as simply putting in writing the generous contribution the city has long made to keeping Project Share afloat in a way that’s more fair to other charitable organizations.
At least, that’s the hope.