New life for Milwaukee LGBT Center

The Milwaukee LGBT Community Center has an enthusiastic new leadership team and is ready to tackle the future, say recently elected board co-chairs Jennifer Morales and Paul Williams.

While the team might be new, it includes a number of familiar faces from the center’s past, including popular past executive director Neil Albrecht, who’s joined the center’s finance committee.

“We’re all coming home,” Williams said. “That’s the theme. We came home because there were some problems and we wanted to help out. … There’s someone on the board or advisory council representing every year since we started organizing in 1996.”

The center first opened its doors in 1999.

The renewed vigor surrounding the community center stems from an open meeting held by the group’s former board with the city’s LGBT community at large on Jan. 26. At that time, the center was reeling from a deep budget deficit and the abrupt departure of former executive director Maggi Cage, who had alienated donors, members and a large swath of the community served by the center.

About 200 people showed up, and many of them volunteered to help put the center back on track. An advisory council was formed, and the group’s board has since expanded from four members to 13 people who represent a diversity of valuable experience, Williams says.

Interim executive director Sheldon Walker, who spearheaded the effort to bring the community together during the crisis, has returned to his career as a chef. Karen Gotzler, who was part of the center’s early history, is now handling the director’s role on a consulting basis.

One of the first orders of business was to restructure the center’s debt and negotiate a more affordable lease arrangement with Siegel-Gallagher, the company that manages the building currently occupied by the center – the Blatz Boiler House, 252 E. Highland Ave., in downtown Milwaukee.

Gotzler said she’s working on an arrangement to reduce the square footage occupied by the center from 21,000 square feet to 10,000 square feet, by subleasing out unnecessary space. “(Siegel-Gallagher) has been an incredibly supportive partner,” she said.

Standard financial systems and work reports have been put into place, and the board is reviewing the group’s bylaws, including the controversial policy promoted by Cage that turned the board from one elected by members to a self-selecting body.

In addition to addressing financial matters, the new leadership is seeking input from the public about the kinds of programs and activities community members want at the center.

“A couple of board members said recently that we need to be more fun,” Morales said.

“We have all this great energy now about making the center what we want it to be,” Williams said.

Apparently, every possibility is on the table for consideration, from ballroom dancing to cooking classes to movie nights. “The role of the new leadership is to rebroaden the center,” Gotzler said.

An effort also is underway to re-engage former donors who withdrew their support during Cage’s tenure. Morales said board members planned to meet with each donor individually to apologize for the past and “make sure they know that one of the key lessons we’ve learned is that we always have to be in regular communication with our supporters.”

Meanwhile, the service contracts and grants that the center obtained under Cage’s leadership are being fulfilled and programs are ongoing, including Project Q, which supports LGBT and questioning youth and their allies.

Jewish Family Services, which supported the creation of the center’s Milwaukee LGBT Mental Health Clinic under Cage, is referring patients to other providers until the center hires a coordinator for the program. Cage briefly held the role immediately after stepping down as executive director an before leaving the center’s employment altogether.

The enthusiasm and commitment at the center these days has become a self-perpetuating phenomenon that continues to draw in new people while reenergizing those already committed, say the group’s new leaders. With so much to be done, “it would be overwhelming is there weren’t so many passionate, intelligent people involved,” Morales said.

“My resolve gets stronger every day,” Williams said. “It goes back to the old days when there were all kinds of people running into each other (at the center). It was a place you knew you wanted to be, because it was the center of the community.”

“This is an opportunity for us to come together with our best selves, with our highest selves (and) … to come out the other end with a better organization,” Gotzler said. “Every single person I’ve asked to help has said ‘yes.’ To me, that says the community wants this place to be successful and wants us to have a location where we can come together.”

New officers

Jennifer Morales, co-chair

Paul Williams, co-chair

W. Peter Larson, treasurer

Halanna Lathon, secretary