The Gazette covers City Hall, now a flood-damaged icon on May's Island in the Cedar River

Moving a beloved meals program from Greene Square Park: A thought

In City Hall, Viewpoint on March 23, 2008 at 3:15 am

Scott Olson and a broad network of doers and donors appear to have done it.

They have delivered on a new home for Green Square Meals in the spot where Olson, a Realtor at Skogman Commercial Realty, had proposed the program make its new home 15 months ago.

Over that time, Olson, project coordinator for the new site, stayed with it. Things turned a little ugly for a time. Along the way, the meals program didn’t want his idea. Along the way, a few questioned his motives. Some thought he couldn’t get it done.

“I’ve always been a believer in an idea – you run as hard as you can, and if it gets done, great,” says Olson. “If you take it personally, you run yourself into the ground. I just happen to be an upbeat person.

“Do I get passionate about the things I get involved in, sure I do. I’m pleased things have worked out and we’re all on the same page.”

 At a news conference last week in the meals program’s new location, Olson was still shaking loose the final $75,000 for the $900,000 project that will renovate a building at 601/605 Second Ave. SE . Work is set to begin next month, with the meals program in place by June.

The 605 piece of the building will become the space for the meals program, with an ability to seat 144 at one time. The 601 side will house the new home of the Ecumenical Community Center Foundation, a church-based non-profit that houses a variety of small, helping-services and community programs.

The foundation, on the board of which Olson sits, will own the spaces and lease the one to the meals program for 20 years at $1 a year.

The Second Avenue site, which Olson and a group of partners own about two blocks from the existing meals site, seemed to have been a good option for the meals program from the start.

Olson proposed it in late 2006 after City Hall asked the meals program to move so the city could demolish the program’s current home, the city building in Greene Square Park. The building had fallen into disrepair and long ago had stopped being used by the city. And the city was tired of paying the utility bills and maintenance costs, and it didn’t have the money to repair it.

Looking back, Olson understands the devotion that those involved with the meals program have for it. The meals program wanted to stay. The park building has been where they’d been. It was home, and one nicely located for those in need of a meal.

And the meals program almost did stay. It mounted an emotional campaign, raised money and support, and was intent on repairing the city building itself.

Donated union labor built the park building years ago, and union labor was stepping forward to do the work for free now.

In the meantime, Olson was lining up his own cash and in-kind help, in case the meals program liked his idea.

On a 5-4 City Council vote a year ago, the council decided the meals program did have other options, and the council voted to demolish the park building.

But for Olson having provided a seemingly good option, the council majority might have voted differently.

That was a year ago. The meals program went on the hunt for other spots to locate, but, in the end, it couldn’t find one.

In the meantime, though, the landscape was shifting on the Second Avenue idea.

Jim Kennedy, president of the board of the Ecumenical Community Center Foundation, told the news conference last week that the medical office next to the existing center, at 1035 Third Ave. SE, was responsible for putting the Second Avenue site in play way back in 2006.

The medical office wanted to expand, Kennedy said, and had inquired about buying the Third Avenue property. Knowing that the city was asking the meals program to move, Olson, a foundation board member, came up with the thought of moving both the ecumenical center and the meals program into the Second Avenue building.

However, by the time the meals program finally turned to the Second Avenue building, the medical office, Cardiologists P.C., was looking at other options.

In the end, though, it all worked out. The medical practice is buying the ecumenical center’s building so the center can buy the Second Avenue building for it and the meals program.

At last week’s news conference, John Locher, the longtime president of the Green Square Meals program, called the new location “a really nice facility.” He said it was a place where people will continue to be able to find friends and a free meal cooked and served by volunteers.

“It’s been a simple operation,” Locher said of the meals program. “… It’s part of the fabric of the community.”

Lois Buntz, president and CEO of the United Way of East Central Iowa, called the plans for the Second Avenue building “a great collaborative venture,” and she said it should provide the opportunity for the meals program to feed more people.

Hunger is one of the community’s biggest issues, Buntz said, and she said Green Square Meals has been “a critical service” in the community’s effort to help those in need.

“It’s important that we retained it in the community and found a new home for it,” she said.

Asked why he hung in there, Olson notes that his resume includes more than moving property. In addition to the ecumenical center board, he has sat on the board at Geneva Towers, some of the residents of which eat at Green Square Meals. And he’s also a 30-plus-year board member and founding board member of Four Oaks, the large family-service agency, and remembers when the agency began serving just 10 children.

 “I felt we had a good idea,” Olson says of his effort to make something for the ecumenical center and the meals program work. “If it happened to work, fantastic. If not, I move on and do other things.

“I firmly believed it could work for both organizations. It just took a lot longer than I thought.”

Olson says he can get passionate about things and so, he says, he has come to see and understand the passion of those involved in Green Square Meals.

“This is the community you live in, and if you don’t participate and use your skills, nobody is going to do it,” he says.


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