When Laura Witkowski moved to Charlotte in 2005, she worried a city in the so-called Bible Belt wouldn't offer much for lesbians. That was before she learned the city had a fledgling gay community center.
"It made an enormous difference in my decision to feel comfortable here," says Witkowski, who soon after became the Lesbian & Gay Community Center's executive director.
She now is no longer in that role. That's because last month the Center decided to cut its two paid staff positions, and Witkowski submitted her resignation. Its financial woes forced leaders to cut hours, leaving the Central Avenue gathering spot open only a few hours on three weekday evenings and early Saturday afternoons. On Feb. 13, the board of directors planned a town hall meeting to elicit support.
The Center's donations aren't meeting its expenses, which Witkowski says are about $150,000 a year. Last year, the Center took some money from Pride Charlotte profits to cover expenses -- money the organization had hoped to set aside for next year's gay pride festival.
Those involved in the Center, whether Witkowski, patrons or current or ex-board members, say the cutbacks aren't due in any way to misuse of funds. But some say they wish the Center had been more upfront early on about its precarious finances.
"When I came on board, a lot of board members were very concerned about financially where the Center was but were very hesitant to let this information out," Witkowski says. "They were afraid that this would make people look at the Center as being in a sensitive and delicate organization. It's hard sometimes to convince people to give money to an organization that's fledgling, so I can understand where they were coming from, where at the same time I felt like that really put a bind on what I was able to do to really be able to drum up support and drum up funds."
Some Center supporters said the news seemed to come out of nowhere. "Quite honestly, I've been very involved in the gay and lesbian community over the years, and I had no idea that it was struggling, much less that it was close to closing," says Phil Wells, a lawyer and former co-chair of MeckPAC, a local gay and lesbian political lobbying group.
Joe Campos, chairman of the Board of Directors, declined to respond to Witkowski's comment and said he'd rather not delve into past matters that wouldn't help the Center raise funds. "It's important that the Center is viable," Campos said.
Darryl Logsdon, a former board member, doesn't think the Center's leadership was responsible for its woes. Like many nonprofits, the Center has had difficulty finding people willing to devote the time and energy to serving on the board, he says. Being a gay nonprofit hasn't made that any easier.
"Otherwise qualified candidates may still be struggling with internalized homophobia," Logsdon says. "Clearly, if you're still caught in that reconciliation effort, you're nowhere near self-actualized enough to ... be part of those organizations and, in some cases, even write a check."
Lacey Williams, another former board member, said community support had been a problem. "And I think we've all needed to do some soul-searching about why the community hasn't supported the organization and what (the reason) is ... I mean, is it just an apathetic community or is it a community that just didn't connect with the services that were being offered."
The Center opened February 2003 with grants funding some of its start-up costs, but in recent years it has been almost entirely donor-driven. The first of its kind in Charlotte, the Center served as a gathering place for events and programs. "It was a huge step forward for this area," Wells said. "I think what a lot of people don't realize is that it's really been sort of a gateway between the gay and lesbian community and the rest of the broader community."
The National Association of LGBT Community Centers lists facilities in three North Carolina cities: Charlotte, Raleigh and Wilmington. Most cities Charlotte's size or larger have a gay community center, but not all. Some of those cities with centers receive local government support, Logsdon says.
In many larger cities without community centers, a variety of gay and lesbian groups offer services, lessening the need for an overarching center. The Atlanta Gay and Lesbian Center, for instance, closed in recent years after being open for about two decades. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in 2004 that the group was struggling to survive in part because of the many gay groups that were competing for the same donors.
Charlotte is home to no predominantly gay neighborhood, a so-called gay ghetto, though the Center's neighborhood, Plaza-Midwood, is often thought to be gay-friendly (even Wikipedia says so).
Winn Maddrey, chairman of the City Committee, which a few years ago paid a consultant who studied how Charlotte could develop its "Creative Class," hadn't heard about changes at the Center. But he said it's important that Charlotte holds on to entities that attract "a growing thriving workforce."