For the last quarter century, the Marian Center for Nonprofits on South Lake Drive has provided local nonprofits with affordable office space, but on July 1 it will cease operating.
“It’s just like owning a house, but your house is 110 years old and it’s huge,” Charlene O’Rourke-Hertig, executive director of the Marian Center for Nonprofits, said. “The increasing cost of maintaining an aging infrastructure makes the current business model financially unsustainable.”
The property is owned by the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi, but the center is independent from the order. However, the sisters have invested more than $1 million during the nearly 25 years the Marian Center has existed and that’s a debt that, at the moment, can’t be repaid in a reasonable time.
A few days before Christmas 2015, the Marian Center sent a letter to its 62 tenants informing them they will need to find a new place for their offices because the center will be closing.
“In the lease that we have, we were required to give 60 days notice, but the sisters and our board of directors chose to give additional notice knowing that we were displacing so many tenants,” O’Rourke-Hertig said. “Tenants received it with understanding … they really have been extremely professional in their response and grateful, extremely grateful.”
So far, 12 organizations have found new offices but 50 nonprofits are still operating at the center while looking for new locations.
“We’ve been investigating options for the last eight years,” O’Rourke-Hertig said. “We came up with a plan of affordable housing for families with disabilities.”
O’Rourke-Hertig said the Marian Center partnered with a development company, but they faced strong opposition.
“The plan was met with a lot of resistance by the neighbors, the Milwaukee neighbors,” O’Rourke-Hertig said, adding local residents at public hearings were concerned about the people who would be moving into the neighborhood.
“Affordable housing seemed like the best next step, but we looked at work force housing; that really didn’t seem like the right fit,” she said. “To continue as a nonprofit center was always the option, to continue until we couldn’t do it anymore. And that’s what has been determined now.”
The gymnasium in Rosary Hall, located on the Marian Center property, has been rented to various individuals who plan on using it for wedding receptions, baptism receptions and graduation parties. Several reunion classes for St. Mary’s Academy will use the gym for gatherings before the Marian Center closes. But it will no longer be available after the center is closed.
O’Rourke-Hertig said there is no immediate plan for how the property will be used.
“The sisters have no definite plan at this point but they do have a lot of dreams,” she said. “It will be the sisters’ responsibility to determine what will happen with the Marian Center.”
The building was constructed in 1904 and served as an all-girls high school called St. Mary’s Academy. In the 1930s, Rosary Hall was added to the north side of the property and St. Clare College, “the predecessor of Cardinal Stritch University,” shared the space, according to O’Rourke-Hertig.
The high school closed in June 1991 after educating 8,000 young women. Three months later, the building’s classrooms were converted into office space and it began operating as the Marian Center for Nonprofits.
Sr. Rose Sevenich, a Sister of St. Francis of Assisi and member of the Mariaan Center board of directors, is also an alumna of St. Mary’s Academy, class of 1962.
“It was an excellent education. It set me up for going on for a degree,” Sr. Rose said, adding she was also an aspirant with the order. “It prepared me for whatever I was going to be doing as a sister.”
Sr. Rose said starting an all-girls school was a big deal at the time.
“It was a huge decision back in 1904 to build a building to teach girls because girls were not being taught,” Sr. Rose said. “The building was where all the life took place.”
Sr. Rose remembers learning everything from sports to theater, and she said it was an emotional time when the school closed.
“When it closed as a high school, as an academy, the whole feeling of emptiness in the building was tremendous in comparison to all the life that was going through there,” Sr. Rose said. “Kids slamming their lockers and running up the halls … what a change.”
With the Marian Center is closing, the nonprofits are reflecting on their time in the building.
“Our relationship with the Marian Center has been great and still is,” Dawn Nuoffer, executive director of the Down Syndrome Association of Wisconsin, said. “The benefits to being in this space was it was economical rent, especially for low budgeted nonprofit organizations that want to use all of their revenues for their programming.”
Nuoffer said it’s going to be difficult to find another place like the Marian Center.
“It’s going to be a challenge to find another landlord that’s willing to rent out at an economical rate,” she said, adding that looking for a new place doesn’t take away from the mission of the organization. “It’s not that it’s taking attention away from other projects, but you have to continue to provide your high quality programming while at the same time have this on your plate as well.”
Nuoffer said they’re looking at places near Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin and on major bus lines.
Cindy Bentley, executive director of People First of Wisconsin, a grassroots self-advocacy organization run by and for people with disabilities, expressed sadness about the closing. “It was really good rent for our organization … now we’re probably have to pay more rent but it’s all right,” she said.
Bentley said O’Rourke-Hertig took care of everyone in the center.
“I’m going to miss her the most because she is just so nice,” Bentley said. “I’m going to miss everyone actually.”