Q&A: Campus 2020 campaign


Special to the Heritage Florida Jewish News

First of two parts

Just seven months after its launch, the Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando’s Campus 2020 campaign has raised more than $1 million in pledges and matching funds that will go toward eliminating the $4.5 million in debt carried by the Maitland Jewish Community Campus, which is owned and managed by the Federation.

The goal of Campus 2020 is to retire the debt before Jan. 1, 2020, resulting in annual savings of more than $380,000 to the Jewish community. The campaign has been in its major-gifts phase since its official rollout in late March, securing gifts of $507,000 as of Nov. 1, with matching gifts raising the total to nearly $1.2 million.

With the public phase of Campus 2020 set to launch in early 2017, campaign Chairman Michael Soll, vice president and immediate past president of the Federation’s Board of Directors, recently discussed the debt, the campaign and how the success of Campus 2020 will help transform the landscape of the local Jewish community.

In part one of this two-part series, Soll talks about the genesis of the debt, how the Federation is tackling the debt, and some of the long-term ramifications for the Federation and the agencies that call the Maitland campus home.

Q: Take us back to the beginning. Where did the Maitland campus debt come from?

A: Our community has obviously grown since the Maitland campus began as a single building—a former farmhouse—in 1973, and the demand for programs and services grew proportionally. In order to expand the services the campus could offer to a larger Jewish community, the facility underwent a major expansion and renovation from 2002 to 2005, with construction of a new building for the Jewish Academy of Orlando (JAO) and renovations to the Roth Family JCC, including the senior lounge and auditorium. The Holocaust Memorial Resource & Education Center, also on the Maitland campus, was not part of that expansion project.

The construction costs alone for those projects exceeded $12 million. When you factor in existing mortgages and associated expenses, such as loan fees, interest and the carrying costs on bonds, the early-2000s expansion of the campus ultimately carried a price tag of more than $13.8 million.

Q: There was a capital campaign prior to that expansion. Didn’t that campaign pay for the expansion?

A: Not fully. A capital campaign was launched to finance a bond purchase for the project. That campaign brought in pledges of about $9.29 million vs. the expansion cost of $13.8 million. Some plans were scaled back or revised, and Maitland campus agencies agreed to annual debt obligation payments to the Federation so that construction could proceed and the community’s vision of a modern, vibrant, expansive and inclusive campus could be realized. The campus leadership at the time felt strongly that a modern campus should be equipped to accommodate anticipated growth in our community, and plans proceeded accordingly.

The capital campaign fell short of covering the full expansion cost, and the economic downturn that followed led to a significant number of unfulfilled campaign pledges. Those two factors exacerbated the current debt situation, though not exclusively.

Q: The Campus 2020 campaign notwithstanding, what has Federation done to address the debt issue since the expansion? Have you made changes to how Federation does business?

A: Since 2002, the Federation and Maitland campus agencies have spent more than $2 million to service the debt. Over the past three years, we’ve reduced the debt principal from $5.9 million to about $4.5 million. But we’ve done a lot more than simply making the scheduled payments. In 2014, the Federation agreed to transfer ownership of the Jewish Community Center in Southwest Orlando to the Harris Rosen Foundation, applying the full $500,000 proceeds to the debt. As part of that agreement, the Rosen Foundation agreed to fund $1 million in matching grants for the Campus 2020 campaign.

And yes, a number of factors—chief among them the campus debt and the economic crash of eight years ago—precipitated significant changes to Federation’s role in our community. The new economic landscape required a reprioritization of Federation’s allocations, programs and campus responsibilities. We’ve fine-tuned Federation’s focus to the mission, working to reposition and stabilize the real-estate side of the community’s assets so that we can focus on supporting our families here at every stage of life, as well as the international community of Jews and others in need. Today we promote a philosophy that supporting your Federation, your synagogue, your school—anything that is good for one part of the community—ultimately strengthens all of us.

In terms of allocating resources in light of its debt obligations, the Federation has chosen to focus on a few core programs and activities that are the glue of our community. These are programs that have no other home but are critical to Jews in Central Florida—uniquely Jewish learning initiatives and engagement for children, families and teens; leadership development for the change-makers of tomorrow; and engagement activities for our young adults. Focusing on these areas allows us to grow while giving priority to our fiduciary responsibilities. We’ve proportionally reduced the cost of driving the business of Federation, increasing our transparency and accountability while allowing us to face the campus debt issue head-on.

Q: What’s the advantage of eliminating the debt early vs. simply continuing to make the scheduled payments? How would it affect day-to-day operations?

A: It’s really a choice between securing the Maitland campus’ future now or kicking the can down the road and financially hamstringing Federation and campus agencies for at least another decade.

As things stand today, the debt forces all the agencies on campus to stretch their resources. Federation, The Roth Family JCC and the JAO devote valuable staff hours every year for fundraising just to maintain existing programs and services while fulfilling their campus debt obligations. Because of the time and resources consumed by these efforts, agencies have to forgo potential outreach efforts to underserved members of our community. Central Florida is a thriving, growing region. Federation, The Roth Family JCC and the JAO must grow along with it or risk falling short of fulfilling our respective missions.

If we do not retire the debt early, we’ll face a balloon payment of more than $2.4 million in 2023. Given the current and projected economic environment, along with our ongoing obligations, Federation will not have cash on hand to cover that balloon payment, meaning the debt will have to be refinanced, extending campus debt obligations well into the 2020s, possibly further. Yes, that’s an option, but it’s an unpalatable one because it would mean millions of dollars not being released into the community.

I think most people would agree that we’d much rather have that cash directly supporting Jews in Central Florida rather than going to a monthly loan payment.

Q: You’re clearly very passionate about Campus 2020 and what it will mean to the Jewish community. What does the success of this campaign mean to you on a personal level?

My wife Stacey and I, along with our two (now three) children, moved to Orlando in 2004. It was our fourth move in 10 years, and the fourth time getting settled and finding our place in a new Jewish community.

Since my first visit to the Federation website back then, an extraordinary series of events transpired: Even before we found a home, we enrolled our two children in preschool at the JCC in Maitland. Within a month of moving we attended our first Federation event for young adults, which spawned the most valued friendships we still have today. All three of our children have studied at the Jewish Academy of Orlando.

The Maitland campus has, in many ways, been the epicenter of my family’s Jewish life from the day we arrived in Orlando. It remains so to this day, not because of the physical facilities or the services offered, but because the Maitland campus truly represents the full spectrum of possibilities for Jews in Central Florida. It’s a home away from home for literally every generation of Jew in Orlando, from infants to seniors. It’s an incubator of creativity and culture, a gathering place for sports and communal meetings. The campus touches the lives of thousands of people and gives them an immediate sense of belonging. I can’t think of too many other places in our community that mean so much to so many.

Next week: Soll discusses the importance of Campus 2020 matching gifts from the Harris Rosen Foundation and the Jewish Capital Alliance, and explains the benefits of early debt retirement for the larger Central Florida Jewish community.

You can read more about the Campus 2020 campaign at http://www.jfgo.org/2020.


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