Friday September 21, 2012

PITTSFIELD -- The Christian Center wants to build what board members describe as a "dream place" so that the nonprofit organization can better serve the needy people who have relied on the agency's help for more than a century.

The center's board of directors is developing plans for a new campus-like facility that would replace -- and hopefully be built next to -- the Christian Center's current building at the corner of Robbins Avenue and Linden Street.

The proposed new center would be sited on four properties that the Christian Center owns along Robbins Avenue across from Tucker Park, board members said on Thursday. Two of those properties are vacant lots.

The board has scheduled a meeting to solicit public input on the project for 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 3 at the Berkshire Athenaeum on Wendell Avenue.

The cost of the project will hinge on its final design, board members told The Eagle.

"We're gearing up a capital campaign for our 'dream place' and scale it back to what we can afford," said Penny Carey, the center's treasurer.

However, the new campus will need to meet the growing needs of the more than 2,400 men, women and children whom the Christian Center serve throughout Pittsfield and several surrounding towns, said Executive Director Ellen Merritt.

"We are the gateway in the community for services," Merritt said.


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Founded in 1892 by parishioners of the First Methodist Church in Pittsfield, the Christian Center was originally known as the Epworth Mission. In 1906, the center moved to its current location at 193 Robbins Ave., which had previously housed the A.H. Rice Silk Mill.

The Christian Center's $280,000 annual budget, funded primarily through private donations, pays for meals, educational and recreational programs, and a food pantry. The Christian Center also works with other area social service agencies to ensure that its clientele has access to health care, legal assistance and housing.

The center is manned by seven paid staff members and 20 volunteers, who are overseen by the 12-member board of directors.

The board did explore updating the Christian Center's current building, but found that renovating the two-story structure alone would be cost prohibitive. An architect and engineer estimated it would cost the Christian Center $1.2 million just to bring the building up to code, according to board president Cynthia Shuff.

"We're not going to sink $1.2 million into this building," Shuff said.

In addition to its physical deficiencies, the center's current building lacks space for providing additional programs and accommodating more volunteers, center officials said.

Merritt envisions a new center that can accommodate more children and teenager activities, and additional self-help programs, such as nutrition and cooking classes that are beginning to be offered.

"We're at a place where our goal is to develop programs that build skills and self-reliance," she said.

Merritt noted an open house for prospective volunteers will take place at 1 p.m. on Wednesday at the center.

To reach Dick Lindsay:
rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6233

A center of attention ...

n The Christian Center on Robbins Avenue in Pittsfield currently serves 2,427 people in Pittsfield and surrounding towns -- 75 percent considered extremely low income.

n The center's weekday noon meal feeds 40 to 60 people.

n Nearly 30 families and individuals partake in the center's daily food pantry.

n The center is open Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m and every third Saturday from 9-1.

n For more information, call (413) 443-2828 or visit christiancenterpittsfield.org.