Proposed Manchester closing will leave a hole in services, relationships

Like most other organizations and businesses, non-profit groups are feeling the pinch of a long and challenging recession.

Donations are down, competition for limited dollars is fierce, and all the while, the needs those groups try to fill are increasing.

So when the Manchester Center announced last week it would close its doors at the end of June, the news wasn't surprising as much as it was chilling. The center serves residents of Davis Bottom, Irishtown, Speigle Heights, Smithtown and Thompson Road in Fayette County.

Who will step in to serve the needs of some of the poorest and most overlooked communities in Lexington?

"We're going to do anything we can do," said Charlie Lanter, manager for program develop ment at the Community Action Council for Lexington-Fayette, Bourbon, Harrison and Nicholas Counties. "Those are big shoes to fill."

The center has 18 children in its Head Start program, which is provided by Community Action. Lanter said the organization would make sure those children have a place to go.

"The story is still fresh," he said. "We haven't figured out those details. We just found out Friday. We are scrambling, too."

But, he said, at least they have a few months to work things out.

The Rev. David Mac Farland, pastor at Nathaniel United Methodist Mission in the Davis Bottom and Irishtown neighborhoods, said the needs will be filled, but he doesn't know exactly how.

"We've had some initial conversations with the Manchester Center," he said. "We're hoping to set up a more in-depth meeting. We really don't know what we will do until we sit down."

The mission offers free medical and dental clinics, optical exams and a summer program for children. Last year, he said, the mission took children to places they wouldn't normally see, such as Cumberland Falls and the Newport Aquarium.

But won't those new needs of the community place a burden on the mission?

"I don't know if I would call it a burden," MacFarland said. "It is more like a cross to bear."

And it is a cross borne by the Manchester Center for more than 70 years.

The organization began in 1939 as a library founded by Frances VanMeter for the children of Irishtown, just south of downtown Lexington. It was a very poor community settled by the working-class Irish who had fled the potato famine in Ireland. It officially became the Manchester Center in 1952 and eventually served residents of other under-served communities. After Thanksgiving 2005, the center moved from its original location, 1026 Manchester Street, to the second floor of the Carver Center at 522 Patterson Street, giving it a safe, dry building with more classrooms, room for a clothing bank, a full-size gymnasium and cafeteria, plus parking.

Marty Jones, executive director of the center, said if a dedicated funding source cannot be found to keep the center open, the doors will close June 30. The after-school program will close at the end of the school year.

"It's always tough when you run a small non-profit," he said. "Funding is always something you have to look at."

According to a story in The Wall Street Journal last month, the financial difficulties of non-profits are felt nationwide: "The once-booming non-profit sector is in the midst of a shakeout, leaving many Americans without services and culling weak groups from the strong. Hit by a drop in donations and government funding in the wake of a deep recession, non-profits — from arts councils to food banks — are undergoing a painful restructuring, including mergers, acquisitions, collaborations, cutbacks and closings."

As non-profits close, the need continues to grow.

"The type of service they provide is at the neighborhood level and community-driven," Lanter said of the Manchester Center. "Those have come and gone. I hate to say they are a dying breed, but I guess they are."

There is a certain amount of minimum care that will not be maintained with the disappearance of the Manchester Center, he said. Community Action will sit down with the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government and with Nathaniel Mission to have "as little disruption as possible," Lanter said.

Somehow the people will be served, they all agreed.

"Kingdom work is being done and kingdom work will continue to be done," MacFarland said.

Still, losing the center will be a blow not only to the community but to the staff who have developed relationships with families, Jones said.

"That's not a hole that can be filled by other services."