Harsh winter, tax increase put Irish center in financial straits

At the Commodore John Barry Irish Center , (from left) club president Vincent Gallagher, former president Sean McMenamin, Denise Foley, Lori Murphy, and Kathy McGee-Burns gather. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
At the Commodore John Barry Irish Center , (from left) club president Vincent Gallagher, former president Sean McMenamin, Denise Foley, Lori Murphy, and Kathy McGee-Burns gather. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Posted: August 08, 2014

In a tucked-away corner of West Mount Airy, officials of a longtime cultural center have been concerned that the sound of bagpipes and the rhythmic clatter of Irish dancing could go silent.

Citing financial concerns, leaders of the Commodore John Barry Irish Center, a focal point in the region for all things Irish, from music and dancing to art and history, said it had come close to being forced to shut down.

Sean McMenamin, a board member at the center at 6815 Emlen St., said the convergence this winter of increased city taxes, higher-than-usual heating bills, and required upgrades to its 10,000-square-foot, two-story building had put the center in a precarious financial situation.

"These three things came together: the energy costs, the building upgrades, and taxes," McMenamin said. "That has brought us to where we had to use some of our credit to meet the costs."

The club, founded in 1958, is the area's home of cultural societies representing Ireland's 32 counties. Their colorful flags, from Armagh and Donegal through Tipperary and Waterford, line the center's main room.

The facility features a ballroom that can hold 500 dinner guests or about 1,000 dancers, a large bar and dining/meeting room, a library, and a museum. Officials said the club has about 1,000 members.

McMenamin said the building was reassessed for tax purposes this year.

"When we initially got hit with our tax evaluation, they evaluated this place at $3.2 million for real estate taxes," McMenamin said. The center negotiated that down to $1.2 million, "so that we are at about $22,000 in taxes."

He said taxes surged from $7,000 last year.

The bitter winter also took a toll on utility bills at the center, which used 3,000 gallons of heating oil, 1,800 gallons more than in the previous winter, McMenamin said.

He also noted that having a required elevator installed and making needed upgrades to the kitchen, including a new hood for the stoves and oven, jacked up the center's operating costs.

McMenamin said the center still faced about $25,000 in upgrades, noting that the new hood for the stoves would cost about $22,000.

He said for tax purposes, the center is classified as a commercial operation. McMenamin said the center has gross annual revenue of about $230,000.

The center's leaders are working with donated legal help to have it designated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.

That designation, which McMenamin said would take about two years to acquire, would allow the center to apply for cultural and artistic grants to help cover costs.

Vincent Gallagher, president of the center, said changing tax its status was critical to its future.

"There are a lot of organizations that could give us money tomorrow, but, technically, we need to have the nonprofit paperwork," Gallagher said. "In the next two years, we need to have that status."

Denise Foley, a member of irishphiladelphia.com, a group that promotes Irish culture in the city, who works with the center, said the difficult financial times had threatened its future.

"About six months ago, we were really afraid that this was going to be the end of the Irish center," Foley said.

She added that in the last three months, the center had launched a fund-raising effort, reaching out to the region's Irish community, to keep the center afloat.

"We have already hit 40 percent of our goal," Foley said. "Our goal is $50,000, and we have $21,000 and some change. It's coming in every day."


vclark@phillynews.com

215-854-5717

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