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Boys and Girls Club seeks funding for Roseland youth center after major donor backs out

Proponents of a project that would provide after-school and weekend programs for 900 at-risk youth in Roseland are asking for government funding after their major private donor went back on a pledge to pay the nearly $16 million cost.

The Boys and Girls Club of Sonoma-Marin asked Santa Rosa city officials for the money for a youth center Tuesday and said that their major donor had dropped out.

In interviews with The Press Democrat, they identified the donor as Sonoma County developer Bill Gallaher and his wife, Cindy, who donated $1 million for the club to purchase the site on Sebastopol Road at the start of 2020.

Boys and Girls Club Sonoma-Marin CEO Jennifer Weiss said the Gallahers pledged to cover the construction cost, but at a meeting last fall said they would no longer pay for the building. The Gallahers told her only their priorities had shifted, Weiss said.

The club is now seeking federal stimulus dollars from President Joe Biden’s pandemic recovery package that were allotted to Sonoma County and city of Santa Rosa to bridge the gap, while also fundraising privately in hopes of meeting a goal of beginning construction by spring 2022.

Club officials were optimistic about the fundraising progress since the Gallahers pulled out. The setback was just the latest in the club’s decadelong dream of a flagship building for the Santa Rosa neighborhood that has seen historically underwhelming community investment.

The need is high in Roseland, Weiss said. The club has as many as 900 children waiting to access services limited by its current space.

“The kids are waiting,” Weiss said. “They’re outside with their nose on the glass.”

Gallaher is the founder of Oakmont Senior Living and Poppy Bank and CEO of Gallaher Homes. He and two of his business associates did not respond to multiple phone calls and emails this week seeking comment. He was not present during a visit to the his Windsor office from a reporter on Monday, according to a receptionist.

The Boys and Girls Club of Sonoma-Marin has raised $5.5 million since Gallahers backed away, Weiss said. The club also has $1.5 million from a charity auction held by the Sonoma County Vintners.

City and county elected officials have long pledged to increase investment in Roseland, a predominantly Latino neighborhood of more than 6,000 residents. It was an unincorporated island surrounded by Santa Rosa before it was annexed into the city in 2017.

A public revitalization project that consists of a mixed-use commercial and residential village off Sebastopol Road at West Avenue has been in the works for a decade or more but has yet to break ground.

That project, Tierra de Rosas, would include a mix of market-rate and affordable housing, a plaza, an open air food market and a municipal building that could house a library, which is now in a temporary location.

Construction is scheduled to begin first on the market, with groundbreaking as soon as next month, according to Leo Chyi, Hopkins’ district director.

The proposed youth center would be next door to the west and would offer programming for Roseland youth after school, on weekends and in the summers.

“We have a lot of children and a lot of families in Roseland,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, whose district includes Roseland. “They deserve a library and the awesome after-school programs offered by the Boys and Girls Club.”

However, Hopkins said the county was more likely to offer assistance pursuing federal or state grants for the project, rather than a direct infusion of stimulus cash. Like other officials with the city and county, Hopkins expressed uncertainty that stimulus money could go directly to a private construction project, given the restrictions the U.S. Treasury Department placed on the funds.

Weiss stressed the Boys and Girls Club’s focus on providing child care would help Roseland’s families economically recover from the pandemic.

On Tuesday, Michelle Edwards Heery, the club’s chief development officer, made a pitch to the Santa Rosa City Council as it opened discussions on how to spend $34.2 million in stimulus money.

In her pitch, Edwards Heery alluded to the Gallahers withdrawal but did not name the couple.

“This project was fully funded which you may have heard about prior to the pandemic,” she said. “Unfortunately, our funder at the time changed direction and so we have a deficit.”

The project could immediately enroll 1,000 Roseland children, she said.

“There isn’t another project that is this ready to go that will create that many spaces for families that don’t have access to subsidies and don’t have the ability to pay,” she told the council.

The Boys and Girls Club funding request comes amid heightened concern about public safety and community well-being in Roseland and southwest Santa Rosa, where a Fourth of July gang-related shooting killed one man and injured three others, including two teenagers. In the wake of the shooting and other signs of an uptick in street violence, at least three city council members have said they want to do more to invest in Santa Rosa’s poorest neighborhoods.

Money for the Roseland library project is piling up in government coffers. The Santa Rosa City Council has allotted $10 million in PG&E wildfire settlement money for the project, while the state budget set aside an additional $1 million.

Representatives of the Boys and Girls Club and the Sonoma County Library system have long discussed sharing space in the library building. But the club has also long foreseen the need for its own space.

In addition to the $1 million donation for purchasing the land, the Gallahers used their resources as to generate a design for the building and help the club through city zoning and permitting processes. The building likely would have borne the Gallaher name, Weiss said.

There were no rifts between the Boys and Girls Club and the Gallaher family, Weiss said, and the Boys and Girls Club was thankful for the Gallahers’ aid on the project as well as their support of the organization over the years.

“I am immensely grateful for the million (dollars) that we got,” Weiss said. “I am immensely grateful for the half million we got from them over the years. And I am very hopeful that as priorities shift that the Boys and Girls club will be a priority to them anytime in the future.”

The Gallaher family have spent heavily in recent years on Sonoma County political campaigns. Bill Gallaher has spent at least $800,000 so far on a recall effort against Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch, according to campaign finance records.

He appears to be the lone financial backer of the campaign. Ravitch prosecuted his company for alleged negligence after about 100 elderly residents at two of its Santa Rosa care homes were abandoned by staff and managers amid the 2017 firestorm.

Gallaher’s daughter, Molly Flater, spent $1.8 million on a campaign against a 2020 ballot measure to renew the quarter-cent sales tax supporting the public rail line SMART.

You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or andrew.graham@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @AndrewGraham88

Andrew Graham

City of Santa Rosa, The Press Democrat 

As Sonoma County's largest city, Santa Rosa, its policy and politics, crime and its economy affect the lives of North Bay residents both inside city limits and beyond in ways both obvious and unseen. I aim to document those impacts and give voice to city residents.

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