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A Santa Rosa food pantry that serves thousands of needy families is being ousted from its longtime home because the city wants to avoid spending the money to upgrade the aging building.

The nonprofit F.I.S.H. has operated rent-free out of a former city firehouse at the corner of Benton and North streets for 17 years. The all-volunteer operation, which was founded in 1973, handed out food to nearly 64,000 people in 16,000 households last year, 40 percent of whom are children.

But the cash-strapped city is faced with spending $350,000 to upgrade the building over the next five years, money it doesn't make sense to invest in a building of very little value, said Marc Richardson, director of Recreation Parks and Community Services.

"Our recommendation is that we not make the improvements and find a new owner for the building," Richardson said.

The one-story, 1940s-era building has long been on a list of surplus city property that could be sold to raise money or avoid future city costs, Richardson said.

It is also on a list of 45 city facilities the city must upgrade to comply with the requirements of the 1992 Americans With Disabilities Act.

Following an investigation by the federal Department of Justice, the city in 2009 agreed to spend $2 million to fix 600 violations at city buildings and parks over four years. It is about halfway finished with the effort, which needs to be completed by the end of 2013.

No final decision has been made about what to do with the building. It could be fixed up, boarded up or sold. But all of those scenarios would require F.I.S.H., which stands for Friends in Service Here, to relocate.

"We've basically come to the conclusion that one way or another, the city wants us out," said Dennis Hansen, F.I.S.H. deputy director.

This isn't the first time the city has proposed giving F.I.S.H. the boot. Several years ago, former City Manager Jeff Kolin was considering something similar but decided against it after Hansen explained all the good work the group was doing out of the modest facility, he said.

"When I was done, he said 'Go back and do what you've been doing,' " Hansen said.

But several weeks ago, city officials began pushing the issue again. The city is facing two big maintenance costs in coming years on the old firehouse. The largest is about $200,000 in deferred maintenance, including a new roof and heating/air conditioning system, said Camron MacDonald, a city facilities planning coordinator.

The other is about $150,000 of ADA-related work. The bathroom is too small and needs to be remodeled, and the ramp leading up to the building is slightly too steep, MacDonald said.

About a dozen people stood on that ramp Monday afternoon waiting to receive their monthly allotment of groceries. F.I.S.H. gives out several pounds of food to needy households once a month. The food is a combination of donations, mostly from area supermarkets, and items purchased by F.I.S.H.

Bryce Regazzi, a 36-year-old machinist, has been out of work for 19 months. His unemployment benefits have run out and he's applying for jobs that pay about $10 an hour, about a third what he was making at Agilent several years ago.

He has a 10-year-old daughter and has relied on F.I.S.H. several times to put food on the table.

"This place is a godsend," Regazzi said.

The city is trying to flexible about when the nonprofit needs to leave, Richardson said. Instead of setting an eviction date, the city hopes the organization soon will be able to find a new home that suits them.

Hansen, however, says the group can't afford to pay a market-rate rent.

While most of the 550,000 pounds food it distributed last year was donated, the group also buys food to ensure clients get well-rounded meals that include breads, meats, fruits and vegetables, he said.

"If you charged us $2,000 a month, one-third of our budget is gone," Hansen said.

The group is hoping someone steps forward to offer them some space. They need 2,500 to 3,000 square feet of space with a small kitchen, room for parking and a storage area that is easy for delivery drivers to access, he said. The group also would prefer to be somewhere that is easily accessible by bus, he said.

The board of F.I.S.H. is reaching out to the community, including various churches, in its hunt for a new home.

But the most important thing is that the transition happens smoothly. Grocers need to know that they can donate their food on a regular schedule, and if that schedule is interrupted, they could decide to dispose of the food another way, Hansen said.

The group has been very understanding that the city is in a difficult position, financially and legally, Richardson said.

"We're all trying to work together to make the best we can out of a situation all of us would prefer not to be in," he said.

You can reach Staff Writer

Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com.