In early August, Lara Knuettel watched from the sidelines as kids from the Staenberg-Loup Jewish Community Center (JCC) played at the Maccabi Youth Games in Orange County, California. The games are held in a different location every year, and Jewish Community Centers from around the world participate.
This year, it was a time for Knuettel to breathe a small sigh of relief.
When she took over as CEO of the Denver JCC just over a year ago, the center was $14.3 million in debt, and there was concern for the organization’s future.
“That was in question for a while,” she said.
The Denver team at the Maccabi had spent months playing sports and training for the games at the JCC, a 125,000-square-foot campus at 350 S. Dahlia St. in the Virginia Vale neighborhood. As a local community center, its mission is much more than to be just a neighborhood gym, Knuettel said. On average, 6,000 people come through the organization’s doors every week. That means, she said, it’s a home where people of all ages can spend their time growing and learning from one another.
For that reason, it was crucial to get the J — as it is known in the community — back to a healthy financial state after a group of donors raised the money to get the organization out of debt.
“That’s the future of the JCC, right there — it’s those kids that we want to be here for,” Knuettel said. “I wanted to help save that mission and keep it here for generations to come.”
‘Weight of the debt’
In 2015, the JCC announced a $50 million capital campaign with plans to move the community center’s tennis courts and build a new fitness facility in its place. The project also had plans for a new office building.
Less than a year into the project, JCC’s then-CEO Stuart Raynor left the organization. He had been in the post since 2007. Ali Hill took over in September 2016.
At about the same time Hill took the position, JCC leadership realized the $50 million project was not feasible. Instead of building a new athletic facility, the JCC updated its existing building, cutting the bill for the campaign down to $15 million.
Knuettel officially took over from Hill in November 2017 after being the interim CEO for three months. As soon as she started, the JCC began its annual budgeting process. That was when Knuettel said she knew the organization to find a way to not only clear its debt, but to become financially healthy again.
“It was a little bit of a shock,” she said. “That’s when I realized the weight of the debt could not be sustainable by this organization.”
Saving the J
In October, the Rose Community Foundation, an organization that supports nonprofits in Denver, approached Knuettel to help her come up with a plan. Rose Community, as well as the Mizel Family Foundation, founded by Larry Mizel and his wife Carol, the Sturm Family Foundation, founded by Donald and Susan Sturm, and Michael Staenberg, a Colorado developer for whom the organization is named for, donated millions toward the debt. In addition to those donors, Kneutter said 35 families and foundations made contributions to help save the JCC.
“It was the community that saved the community,” she said. “People came forward because they saw the value of JCC.”
The donated funds went toward purchasing the JCC campus. Rose Community created a subsidiary nonprofit that will hold the property, leasing it to the JCC for $1 annually for the next 100 years. This will allow the JCC to focus on maintaining the buildings and improving programming. The organization also brought in a new board, whose members had expertise in finance and real estate.
According to a 990 tax from from the JCC in 2016, the organization made a little more than $6 million in programming revenue and $7 million in grants and contributions. Expenses for the JCC were at $10.1 million according to the form.
“This is a reset button for this organization,” Knuettel said.
Now that the debt has been cleared, the JCC can focus on its programing, as well as its place in the community, Knuettel said. The JCC was founded in 1922 and has moved from place to place around the city before settling in Virginia Vale.
Jeanne Abrams with the Rocky Mountain Jewish Historical Society at the University of Denver said there were two waves of immigration during the 1800s. In the first half of the century, Jewish people of German descent traveled to Denver, and the second wave came from Eastern Europe in the 1880s.
There was a national push for Jewish community centers in the ‘20s to help give children a cultural resource as well as a place to play and exercise, she said.
A shopowner named Leopold Guldman donated the equipment for a new community center, and the Rude family donated the land near what is now Rude Park in the Sun Valley neighborhood at 2855 W. Holden Place. It was called the Guldman Community Center when it first opened. In 1937, it moved to 1601 Irving St.
The Jewish Community Centers of Denver was officially incorporated in 1947, and a new building was opened off of Colfax Avenue and Williams Street in 1950. This consolidated the Guldman Community Center as well as another local organization together, Abrams said.
The JCC brought families together from both regions of Europe, Abrams said. Guldman’s family was of German descent and the Rudes were from Eastern Europe. The center also offered English classes to help people integrate into society in Denver.
These days, JCC programming is meant to help people through all stages of their lives, from infancy to old age. This is part of what makes the JCC unique, Knuettel said. The organization has the fitness center, but also offers after-school programming, summer camps and theater classes for children. For adults, there are art classes as well as programming for new parents, Jewish life and more.
Knuettel’s office sits off the main lobby in the Dahlia Street building.
Every day, she hears the sounds of people coming in and out of the doors — giving her a feel for how they spend their time at the J. That was how she fell in love with the organization, she said. One of her favorite things is seeing the young interact with the old.
“While Jewish is in our name, it is value driven,” she said. “It’s rare to find that kind of variety.”
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