Longtime Boys & Girls Club chief retires

Longtime Boys & Girls Club chief retires

Michele Ellson
George Phillips, Boys & Girls Club of Alameda

George Phillips, longtime director of the Boys & Girls Club of Alameda and the public face of an ambitious campaign to build a 25,000-square-foot, $10 million West End facility for the families it serves, has announced he is stepping down after 14 years on the job.

“Looking back, I am tremendously proud of the Club's accomplishments during my tenure,” Phillips, 66, wrote in a club e-mail to supporters Thursday. “The Club's visibility and respect in the community has certainly grown to the point where we have a very positive reputation, not only in Alameda, but reaching even to the national level.”

In an interview with The Alamedan, Phillips said he feels it’s a good time to depart, now that the building is open and its programs are up and running. As the interview took place, a group of 10 youths were in the club’s art room making three dimensional hand impressions; later on, Phillips said, they’d head into the club’s gym or to the park for Frisbee golf, some kickball or tag.

“It just felt right. It just seems time to step aside,” he said.

Phillips has been cast by those who have worked with him over the years as a passionate advocate for the club whose tenacity was key to winning the funding it needed to build its new Third Street home during one of the worst economies on record.

“I have partnered with him on several initiatives, and watched with admiration as he worked tirelessly to get the new facility built,” said Doug Biggs, executive director of the Alameda Point Collaborative. “While others had doubts about the ability to pull of something so big in a failing economy, I don’t think George ever doubted for a second that the facility would be built.”

Phillips offered attendees of a recent City Council meeting photocopies of a March 23 San Francisco Business Times article naming the club the “best community impact” building in its real Estate Deals of the Year roundup.

“George has worked tirelessly to spread the word about the Club to everyone he could. He used to joke that people would cross the street when they saw him, knowing that the first words out of his mouth would be to praise the Club and what they were doing for the youth of Alameda and then ask them to support their worthwhile mission,” Sally Rudloff, the club’s outgoing board president, wrote in Thursday’s club e-mail.

Phillips came to the club gig after a career as a retail executive, which included stints at Liberty House and Mervyn’s department stores and another in which he ran his own San Francisco stores. Business suffered after the 1989 earthquake, though, and wanting to spend more time at home with his son, Phillips quit the retail game.

Volunteer work at St. Joseph Elementary School put Phillips on track to create a development office for the school. And it was in that capacity that the club’s them-leaders discovered and approached him for the top slot.

“They wanted someone who would put them back on the map,” Phillips remembered. “They just wanted a fresh perspective.”

The club, which has been in Alameda since 1949, was then housed in a much smaller space on Lincoln Avenue, next to Henry Haight Elementary School. But the neighborhood the club sat in was gentrifying as well, Phillips said, becoming home to wealthier families that had less need of the club’s services.

Meanwhile the building – which had housed the club since former President Herbert Hoover reportedly dedicated it, in 1957 – was deteriorating the point that there were concerns about its safety, particularly in an earthquake. Faced with a $2 million bill to retrofit the building, Phillips and the club’s board embarked on efforts to build a new facility that they hoped would serve nearly three times the 1,300 youths who attended programs at their Lincoln Avenue location – efforts Phillips described as a six-year process that involved reaffirming relationships with businesses and growing special events to help attract funding.

The club sold the Lincoln Avenue building in 2008 and by that fall, its leaders had raised $5.5 million of the $10 million they needed to build and operate a new youth development center on a 1.5 acre plot next to the old Woodstock School that the school district is leasing to the club for $1 a year. Their original plan, drafted when economic times were good, was to move into their new home at the corner of Third and Ralph Appezzato Memorial Parkway by October 2009.

But the 2008 stock market crash, which destroyed the portfolios of foundations and wealthy donors alike, slowed the club’s fundraising to a crawl, ultimately delaying its opening by 19 months. Despite the challenges, Phillips said the club’s board held firm to their shared vision of the center, and he worked to find the remaining funding needed to begin construction.

“The board didn’t waver. At that point we decided, it needs to be done. We’ll find a way,” he said.

In 2009 Phillips asked the City Council for $2 million in regional park bond funding so work on the facility could commence. The request generated consternation from some who felt it should be spent on existing and proposed city-owned parks but praise from others who felt it leveraged scarce dollars into a community asset the city couldn’t have built itself. (The club ultimately got $1 million.)

“From the City’s standpoint, our community was getting a $10 million facility for $2 million. It was a deal we could not pass up, especially in these tight budgetary and economic times,” said Councilwoman Lena Tam, who championed Phillips’ proposal. “This center is a testament to our community’s value and investment in our youth.”

The club’s new home opened in May 2011, complete with a gymnasium and computer lab, game room, dental and health screening clinic and more. In addition to providing services either on its own or in partnership with a bevy of other local nonprofits, the club offers gym and classroom space to surrounding schools, after-hours adult recreation opportunities through the city’s recreation and parks programs and meeting space for community groups and local elected officials.

“We’re just starting to scratch the surface of the potential maximum utilization of the place. But it’s used a lot to support our schools, with space that they don’t necessarily have access to on a daily basis,” said Robert Shemwell, the Alameda Unified School District’s chief business officer.

Biggs, director of the Alameda Point Collaborative, said it “has opened up a whole new world of opportunity for the youth we work with.”

Shemwell said the district and the club just received word that they won a $2 million state grant that will help the club put the finishing touches on some of its facilities, like its kitchen and computer lab. He said Phillips applied for the grant three times before succeeding.

“He’s one of these guys – he kept hanging in there. He’s tenacious,” Shemwell said of Phillips. “A lot of people would have given up at fail one, certainly never tried it again at fail two. He kept it going.

“George doesn’t stop,” he added. “We’ll all be sorry to see him go. But I doubt we’ll see him go.”

Phillips’ official last day was Friday, though he said that he will help out at the club part-time. Diane Cunningham Rizzo, the club’s director of resource development and community relations, will serve as interim executive director until a permanent director is hired.

“What I brought to the club, I think, is marketing skill, passion and advocacy. And I can still do a lot of that,” Phillips said. “I’m not going to stop talking about the club. I’m not going stop reaching into people’s wallets for money.”