Lost N Found is abandoning its ambitious plans to renovate an aging Midtown building into a shelter for homeless LGBT youth as its landlord seeks to turn the property over to a developer.
The dramatic shift in plans was announced Wednesday by a newly-constituted Lost N Found board, just weeks after the organization suffered through the very public demotion – then reinstatement – of its executive director as several board members resigned.
But abandoning plans to remake the three-story, 112-year-old building on Juniper Street into an expansive shelter and workspace for the organization doesn't mean the shelter won't happen. Instead, Saint Mark United Methodist Church – which owns the building and several parcels around it – wants a developer to take control of the property, redevelop it into an office building or tower, and provide space to Lost N Found and church ministries as well as a parking deck.
The church would provide a ground lease to the developer that would cover its $1.6 million mortgage on the parcels and specify that Lost N Found would have space in whatever is built, according to Beth LaRocca-Pitts, the senior pastor at Saint Mark.
"Hopefully it would provide [Lost N Found] with better space than they could have had in a renovated 100-year-old structure," LaRocca-Pitts said during the meeting Wednesday.
"We want the property to be used for ministry. We are going to be talking to developers that build Section 8 housing. We are going to be talking with developers that do good," she added.
The church will soon seek out bids from developers and expects the project will take two to three years to build, LaRocca-Pitts said. In the meantime, Lost N Found will work to open two smaller shelters in the coming months. That would give the non-profit three overall – and increase their housing capacity to 18 youth, according to Executive Director Rick Westbrook (photo).
"Yes we'd have to wait a couple of years to get brand new space where we want it," Westbrook said. "But by not spending money on that house, we can increase our services three-fold."
Lost N Found hopes to have the additional shelter capacity in place in the next few months, board Secretary Robert Ross said.
"We will be able to start serving people this winter. If we had to wait for the house to be built out, it would be sometime next summer," Ross said.
In 2013, Lost N Found leased the property from Saint Mark for $1 per year, gutted it with the help of volunteers and launched a $1 million capital campaign to complete the renovation. IKEA even chipped in with a $10,000 grant in April.
But that fundraising effort will be put on hold and the nearly $35,000 already raised will be frozen until Lost N Found has its new facility, Treasurer David Little said. Additionally, the redevelopment project will reimburse Lost N Found for the money it's already spent on renovating the building on Juniper, LaRocca-Pitts said.
On Wednesday, Lost N Found officials could not provide a figure for how much it's spent on the renovation so far, Little said.
'I don't believe in boys clubs'
Lost N Found board Chair Bruce Garner said that initially, the proposal from Saint Mark shocked him.
"I've gotten attached to that pile of bricks there," Garner said. "We had the option to go ahead and exercise the lease we already had. But that would have been awful stewardship of our resources."
The change in course for Lost N Found came after a tumultuous few weeks in which Westbrook was demoted. The action provoked a public backlash that prompted eight of the board's 12 members to resign. The remaining four board members reinstated Westbrook on Aug. 26.
The announcement on Wednesday came during a public meeting that Westbrook promised to hold as the non-profit regained its footing. During the meeting, the board introduced six new board members – Robert Ross, Rhonda Creekmore, Jonathan Shapero, Theron Stuart, David Holland and George Houghtaling. That roster – along with current board members Bruce Garner, Marci Alt, David Little and Robert Ross – bring the board to 10 members.
But that list includes just two women, no people of color and no transgender members – all populations that Lost N Found serves as it cares for LGBT homeless youth. Westbrook, Garner and Shapero said as the board is expanded to 15 people, the non-profit will focus on diversifying its ranks of mostly older white gay men.
"I don't believe in boys clubs. Diversity of this board is high on my priority list," Garner said. "Diversity is a requirement."
On Friday, the Atlanta Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce honored Lost N Found with its Guardian Angel Award.