Community members discuss WREN's future in Bethlehem. (Photo by Angel Larcom) (click for larger version)
February 27, 2019BETHLEHEM — On Feb. 23, WREN hosted an open gathering in Bethlehem with the goal of engaging the community in a think tank regarding WREN's future. This event was the organization's first public outreach since the sudden and shocking announcement that all operations would cease at the end of 2018. It was well-attended by community members and former employees.
Board President, Susan Retz opened the discussion by addressing many of the questions and rumors that had been circulating about what had happened to make the nearly 25-year-old organization take such a drastic step two months ago.
Retz said, "It's hard to explain how we got here, and it wasn't one thing that caused our current situation."
Last February, Retz received a phone call from Alison Chisolm, Executive Director at the time. Chisolm said the organization needed cash, outreach began, and a large number of generous people donated to WREN. This money was used to sustain operations until September 2018.
She went on to say, "Several months of slow sales at both of WREN's stores, the Mount Washington and Bethlehem; and there was another call just before Thanksgiving. We need to let staff go because we were cash strapped once again."
WREN's Board of Directors met in early December to decide what the next step should be. They pondered the choice of closing immediately or "going into hibernation" for the first fiscal quarter of 2019. They opted for hibernation.
Retz went on to explain that after former Executive Director Marilyn Cooper retired in 2015 the organization fully extended their line of credit, had offices in Berlin, the store at Mount Washington, and a staff of 25 to pay.
She also addressed the issue of the vacant property in Berlin and why it had not yet hit the market, commenting that "We could not just sell the Berlin building because of the financial aid we received to purchase it and renting it needed to be a function similar to WREN's."
At the suggestion of their funder, WREN plans to auction the Berlin property in the spring. WREN Central, located behind the retail space on Main Street Bethlehem, is already on the market.
After Retz addressed the public regarding the past, volunteers and other board members took turns discussing different aspects of the organization's future. Natalie Woodruff explained the results of WREN's recent anonymous survey and the subsequent formation of a small group of volunteers devoted to assessing WREN's strengths and weaknesses and reimagining the organization with a sustainable model. Honoring WREN members was identified as one of the organization's top ten challenges.
New board member Mary Secor discussed the most immediate goals and plans for WREN. These plans include continuation of the LEAP educational program for emerging artists, capitalizing on Bethlehem's First Friday arts scene by offering monthly networking events, continuing the one-on-one coaching program known as HOP, and the addition of one-day intensive workshops targeted towards potential entrepreneurs.
Woodruff then explained that funding for the LEAP program already exists, having been secured before the December shutdown and that these four activities would be done without staff or payroll obligations.
Next, board member Kate Foley discussed reducing WREN's footprint, operating on a smaller scale, and invited the public to actively participate in the second phase of assessment and data collection. She identified six areas of focus regarding WREN's future; brick and mortar, technical assistance, the outdoor space, the gallery space, sustainability, and a wildcard station.
Attendees then moved through the room to visit six stations manned by individual board members, wrote ideas down on post-it notes, and attached them to signs on the walls. Conversations were varied and hopeful as the community began discussing the future of the organization.
WREN's Board of Directors are currently processing the new information and using it as a guide to refine their mission statement and business plan with the goal of developing a working model that will sustain the organization for years to come.