Debt-free, fully occupied Community Service Building marks 20th anniversary

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On Wednesday, the Community Service Building (CSB) celebrated its 20th anniversary with a fully occupied building.

The concept of the building was first developed by David Wakefield and Peter Morrow as a way to allow nonprofits to reduce costs of owning their own buildings.

Between savings on rent (tenants pay less than half the going market rate for office space in downtown Wilmington) and free parking for tenants and visitors at the Community Service Parking Garage, the CSB has created more than $48 million in value to the nonprofit community over the past 20 years, according to managers.

“All of our efforts support the vital community work performed by our tenants so that they can put their time, energy and money into their individual missions,” said Jerry Bilton, executive director of the Community Service Building Corporation. “Our model is indeed sustainable, without subsidy from government or foundations since we first opened. We’re not just ‘keeping the doors open.’ We’re investing in equipment that’s state-of-the-art and designed to last for the next 30 years.”

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Reception marks anniversary

A small reception and anniversary ceremony marking the 20th was held to mark the event.

On its anniversary day, the Community Service Building was at full occupancy, with 78 nonprofit organizations spread throughout more than 177,700 square feet of office space.

But it didn’t begin that way.

When the 72-year-old Montchanin Building first reopened its doors after 17 years of DuPont ownership and 18 months of renovations, the former corporate building had a new mission, 12 floors of office space and a total of five nonprofit tenants.

“I like to think Wilmington was ripe for the idea,” said David Wakefield, former executive director of the Longwood Foundation.

“We were very hopeful that we would be able to get a decent number of organizations to join us.”

Willoughby is the current executive director of the Greater Wilmington Convention & Visitors Bureau, one of the original five tenants of the building.

Cost savings add up for tenants

The GWCVB has operated its Visitor’s Center on the first floor of the building since the CSB opened, and Willoughby says that fewer dollars spent on building maintenance have resulted in more dollars spent in pursuit of the organization’s mission to attract visitors to the Greater Wilmington area.

“I have peers in other states that I have to deal with frozen pipes and clogged toilets,” Willoughby said. “If the air conditioner breaks here, they fix it. It’s been a win-win for us in so many ways.”

Cynthia Pritchard is the president and CEO of the Delaware Grantmakers Association, the building’s newest tenant. Leading an organization that operates at the nexus of foundations and nonprofit groups, Pritchard said she has already seen the value of having both under one roof.

“Obviously, it creates a physical environment for collaborations,” Pritchard said. “Some of the most creative ideas come from casual conversations, not from meetings.”

Building idea came out of visit to Texas

The original idea for the Community Service Building took root in the mind of Peter C. Morrow five years before the building opened its doors, while he toured a similar facility in Texas.

Morrow, then head of DuPont’s corporate philanthropic program, is now the president and CEO of the Welfare Foundation, located inside the Community Service Building.

In 1992, he was visiting the Meadows Foundation Conference Center in Dallas, where a variety of social service agencies shared conference and meeting spaces.

Here, he saw a potential solution to an emerging problem: Northern Delaware nonprofits had a growing number of capital projects on the drawing board, totaling more than $200 million, beyond the capacity of existing philanthropic dollars in Wilmington to support.

“Why can’t we have a building here in Delaware that would house a number of nonprofit groups?” Morrow asked.

Wakefield bought into the idea quickly, but there were many others they needed to convince – including leaders within their organizations.

Some nonprofits feared the Community Service Building would dilute individual giving and confuse their independent identities.

Fund-raising effort led to debt-free building

It took years to convince DuPont to commit the Montchanin building to the project and to bring the Delaware philanthropic community on board to support the idea.

In the end, eight foundations and 16 corporations, as well as state, partnered to open the Community Service Building. The Longwood Foundation alone contributed 70 percent of the funds needed to purchase and rehabilitate the building – allowing the nonprofit Community Service Building Corporation to assume debt-free ownership of the building from day one.

“I don’t think there’s another place in the country like this,” Morrow said.

Without debt, the building was able to offer space at $8 per square foot, less than half the going market rate in 1997. Rent increases, tied only to the necessary operational costs of the building, have brought the current rate to only $9.21 per square foot.

Green initiatives instituted by Bilton and his team have been important to keeping costs down and rent low. Grant money helped convert all of the lighting in the parking garage to energy-efficient LED bulbs, cutting annual electric costs in half, from $40,000 to $20,000 a year.

Solar film on the building’s glass exterior reduces the heat load, while a centralized heating and electric system monitors both peak-time electricity usage and the temperature throughout the building. Next on the agenda: A state-of-the-art, energy-efficient cooling tower.

Morrow still works in the Welfare Foundation offices on the 11th floor of the building, and though he had the initial vision, he says he could not have foreseen the degree to which the building would become central to Delaware’s nonprofit community.

“It turned out much better than anybody might have expected,” he said. “It’s been an abundance of success.”

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