Carrboro philanthropy faces Fidelity foreclosure

CommunityWorx in Carrboro faces foreclosure. Photo by Michelle Cassell

COMMUNITY NEWS

By Fraser Sherman
Correspondent

After 72 years in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, the CommunityWorx thrift shop is running out of time.

CEO Barbara Jessie-Black says Fidelity Bank is preparing to foreclose on the Main Street locations of both CommunityWorx and the spinoff charity YouthWorx. Jessie-Black told The Local Reporter that the organization has set a $4.4 million fundraising goal to avoid foreclosure.

From Thrifty Shop to YouthWorx

The Chapel Hill Art Guild founded what was originally The Thrifty Shop in 1952. Jessie-Black says the four women founders wanted to raise funds for art education in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City School District. The foursomes’ rummage sales raised $1,200 to hire the district’s first art teacher. Adding art to the curriculum boosted academic performance enough that the district eventually invested $150,000 in arts education.

“That was the first effort to close opportunity gaps,” Jessie-Black said. “We’ve continued in that vein.” She added that the gaps today are different than they were back in 1952, but “they still affect marginalized populations.”

The Thrifty Shop opened its original brick-and-mortar store on 508 West Franklin Street, with profits going to the district’s various Parent-Teacher Associations. Logically, the store eventually changed its name to the PTA Thrift Shop.

In later decades the store relocated to Jones Ferry Road, South Elliott Road and eventually its current Main Street location. The website says the Main Street storefront gives them room to set up a modern retail establishment, plus office space to lease out. In 2017 they expanded to add Youthworks, a collaborative coworking space for youth-serving nonprofits, in a neighboring location on Main.

The charity relied on volunteer labor for years before deciding, in 2000, to hire paid staff and a paid director. In 2004, Jessie-Black became the charity’s second executive director, later its CEO. Like many non-locals in the RTP Triangle, she came to Chapel Hill with an eye to graduate school, wound up working in the for-profit sector, and eventually moved to the nonprofit world.

A PTA Thrift Shop no more

In 2018, Chapelboro reported that the PTA Council for Chapel Hill and Carrboro had asked the PTA Thrift Shop to stop calling itself by that name. The Council said that as financing the PTA was no longer the store’s focus, it was no longer appropriate to use the name.

Dawn Edgerton, the Chair of the PTA Thrift Shop board at the time, told Chapelboro that the thrift store had been giving so much to the PTA that it undercut the store’s long-term health. In addition, the debt service and other costs involved with setting up YouthWorx had left the nonprofit with less money to donate.

PTA representatives said the loss of funding was a huge blow to many PTAs who’d come to depend on the store’s donations. The PTAs’ losses hurt schools and students in turn. The PTA Thrift Shop board asked for more time to make its decision. In 2019 the store rebranded itself as CommunityWorx.

Some PTA supporters emailed The Local Reporter to say they’re still displeased with the store’s decisions. Jessie-Black said she’s sorry people still feel that way but “I also understand the board made the best decision with the information they had at hand at the time.”

CommunityWorx in action

CommunityWorx says that over the decades it’s given away more than $2 million in clothes and shoes and $10 million in other donations to PTAs and other community partners. Currently, it donates roughly $200,000 worth of merchandise to families in need each year. CommunityWorx also offers in-kind support to PTAs and schools, free resources through the Community Partners Gift Certificate Program, and teacher discounts.

YouthWorx provides a home to multiple nonprofits, including Musical Empowerment, Triangle Bikeworks, and the Weaver Community Housing Association. Its website says it helps other nonprofits adopt best practices “that improve the lives of under-resourced youth in the Triangle” and works “to tackle racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic opportunity gaps.”

The bottom line

 The Charity Navigator website, which reviews and scores the performance of charitable organizations, says 73.95 % of CommunityWorx’ expenses go to programs rather than general expenses, staffing and so on. On that metric CommunityWorks scores 25 out of 25 points.

It scores well on several other metrics, such as having 13 independent board members. However, it scores 0/15 on one benchmark: CommunityWorx’ liabilities total up to equal 96 % of its assets.

“It’s like any business that’s looking to raise funds,” Jessie-Black said. CommunityWorx’s immediate goal is to work things out with the bank and “allow us the breathing room to operate sustainably.”

A CommunityWorx press release says they need the breathing room due to the impact of COVID-19. The pandemic forced the organization to shut down its retail operations for six months, choking off revenue and permanently shutting their Chapel Hill locations. “Despite financial relief programs and the generous patience of Fidelity Bank, we have been unable to keep up with the mortgage payments,” the press release says.

Jessie-Black said CommunityWorx hadn’t received the official paperwork setting the foreclosure timeline. “The timeline is fluid but there’s an urgency in it. We’re early in the process — our goal is to raise as much as possible from a variety of sources.”

She said the organization has received some generous donations, and she’s hopeful more people will donate merchandise or money. The CommunityWorx website has all the information on how to donate online. Jessie-Black said the board is also developing a backup plan for continuing operations if Fidelity forecloses.

Even in a time of crisis, Jessie-Black said there are many things she loves about leading CommunityWorx. “One is that the organization has lived to be as old as it is, 72 years,” and that it’s navigated multiple earlier challenges in that lifespan. “The second point of pride is the work we do in the community — that’s what keeps me continuing to do this work. We touch so many lives.”


Fraser Sherman has worked for newspapers, including the Destin Log, the Pensacola News-Journal and the Raleigh Public Record. Born in England, he’d still live in Florida if he hadn’t met the perfect woman and moved to Durham to marry her. He’s the author of several film reference books and has published one novel and several short story collections.
This reporter can be reached at Info@TheLocalReporter.press

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1 Comment on "Carrboro philanthropy faces Fidelity foreclosure"

  1. Deborah Fulghieri | June 28, 2024 at 9:10 am | Reply

    Did the author ask Ms. Jessie-Black why she and her handpicked board refused to have a financial audit, back in 2017? (A audit would have indicated the thrift shop’s financial direction and provided a way to avoid bankruptcy.). Did he ask why the board excluded all PTA members, even non voting observers? The board consisted of Chamber of Commerce members with no stake in CHCCS. The thrift shop paid the Chamber of Commerce $5,000 per year (Gold level membership). Are Chamber of Commerce members now helping to stave off foreclosure, or even donating back what the thrift shop paid to the Chamber?
    The documents that established the thrift shop as a charity were never changed; a charity whose only goal was contributing to the schools’ PTAs that supported those schools. Ms. Jessie-Black, in the context of requesting a low-interest loan from the Town of Carrboro, promised on video that the renovated thrift shop would soon be donating in excess of $400,000 per year to the PTAs.
    Dawn Edgerton was on the board when the PTAs asked for an audit and explanation of the thrift shop’s diverted goals. The board approved (year after year) a nearly million-dollar payroll, yet she claims that any moneys that went to the schools’ PTAs caused the thrift shop to become unsustainable (this after more than 60 years of sustainable support).
    Why does no one question these people properly? Bankrupting a thrift shop is like bankrupting a casino: it shouldn’t be possible.

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