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Symbol of neighborhood's revival for sale

The "For sale" sign at the Nehemiah Coin Laundromat is a sign of the times.

Hard times.

The Laundromat was the first project of the Corporation to Develop Communities of Tampa, a nonprofit agency created in 1992 to promote economic development in East Tampa.

Now in the midst of a financial crunch, the corporation needs to unload the business.

The decision to sell didn't come easily to Chloe Coney, corporation president.

"The Laundromat project is very dear to CDC's heart," Coney said. "It's the best Laundromat in the world."

Mary Watson said she drives more than two miles every Thursday from her home near Busch Gardens to wash clothes at the Nehemiah Laundromat.

"I pass by all other Laundromats," she said.

What makes a coin laundry so great? Well, this one is clean, has air conditioning, a children's play area, two televisions and an adjacent ice cream shop. Other coin laundries might be able to claim similar amenities.

But the Nehemiah Laundromat, named for the Old Testament figure who helped rebuild a burned-out Jerusalem, symbolizes the beginning of the makeover of East Tampa, long one of the city's most economically depressed areas.

In 1999, the corporation purchased an abandoned coin laundry on the corner of Lake Avenue and N 29th Street.

Using $435,000 from government agencies, charitable organizations and community donors, the corporation renovated the building, reopened the coin laundry and turned it into a positive force at an intersection that even local police dreaded to visit, Coney said.

Since then, the corporation has built an open air market across the street from the Laundromat. With a $500,000 gift from Tampa philanthropists John and Susan Sykes, the corporation built a youth center behind the coin laundry in place of an abandoned bar known as the "blood bucket because so many people were killed there," Coney said.

The corporation also opened a business incubator and helped build affordable homes and apartments in East Tampa. They moved their offices into the One Stop Capital Center on E Hillsborough Avenue where, among other things, the corporation offers job training and placement and workshops on home ownership and running a business.

Next on the agenda: an abandoned strip club across the street from the corporation's offices. The organization received $3.4-million from several federal agencies and the city of Tampa to renovate the building. Coney is now trying to attract a company to the space that will bring good jobs to the neighborhood.

All that started with the Laundromat.

"It was a jewel," Coney said. "It was a catalyst for change."

Now, though, the Laundromat has become a burden for the corporation.

It's too expensive to run, Coney said. It lost its target market five years ago when the federal government tore down more than 1,400 units in the Ponce de Leon and College Hill public housing projects. People are slowly moving back to new homes built in place of of the projects, but that's not happening fast enough.

The corporation also is feeling the pinch of declining funding from foundations and government contracts.

One cut came three years ago when the state Department of Community Affairs stopped providing $50,000 a year in operating funds.

Then last year, the corporation lost about $300,000 of its funding, no small potatoes for an organization with a $2-million budget, Coney said.

Contributions from the United Way have dropped from $108,000 a year to $60,000, Coney said. And this year marks the end of a five-year grant from the discontinued U.S. Department of Labor's Youth Opportunity program, which provided the corporation with more than $100,000 each year. High school students who have passed through the corporation's Youth Opportunity program, housed at the youth center behind the Laundromat, have gone on to Vanderbilt University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Florida A&M University and the University of South Florida.

The struggles at the corporation reflect a national trend.

Grants made by charitable foundations across the country were down 2.5 percent in 2003, according to the Giving USA Foundation.

"This is largely a function of what's happening in the stock market," said Patrick Rooney, director of research at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. Foundations typically have most if not all of their portfolios invested in the stock market, he said.

Declines in the stock market, combined with efforts directed toward the families of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, mean foundations have less money to give.

Meanwhile, government programs to support nonprofits like the corporation that focus on human services are seeing an increase in demand because more people are unemployed, Rooney said, but there is a smaller tax base to support them. Plus, attempts to limit the federal government's deficit spending have had an impact.

That leaves nonprofits increasingly relying upon private giving, Rooney said.

But in tough economic times, Rooney said, "individual giving to human services organizations goes down more than any other subsector."

In the end, Rooney said, nonprofits like the corporation "get a quadruple whammy in soft economic times."

Coney points out that the corporation earns a little money by leasing space in some of its buildings, and the city of Tampa and Hillsborough County have increased their contributions to the organization. One day, she said, the corporation may be self-sufficient.

For now, Coney said, she is streamlining operations.

"We need to be focused on delivering more services, building more buildings. We don't want to own and run a business," Coney said.

She said she sees the sale of the Laundromat as an opportunity. A primary function of the corporation is to help community members develop business skills.

"I'm hoping someone in our community who wants to be an entrepreneur will step forward and say, "I'd like to be a small business owner,' " she said.

But she won't sell to just anyone. Coney said she wants someone who will run the Nehemiah Laundromat the way the corporation has.

"We want the same commitment to our community," she said. "We want to make sure they take care of the Laundromat."

FUNDRAISER

The Corporation to Develop Communities of Tampa will host its annual fundraising luncheon Oct. 19 from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Hyatt Regency, 211 N Tampa St. For information, call (813) 232-1419.

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