LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Two years ago, the nonprofit Center for Building Hope made a bold move into the business world.
Using a pair of loans totalling $675,000 from Gulf Coast Community Foundation, the Center acquired Brides Against Breast Cancer, which sells donated wedding gowns nationwide.
The gowns are sold at a steep discount from their original price.
Gown sales have increased from 30 markets to 120 under the new ownership.
More importantly, Brides Against Breast Cancer will contribute $2 million to people affected by cancer this year, according to Center officials.
The revenue stream from Brides helps to ensure that the Center for Building Hope can continue to provide free information, support services, and programs to survivors and families dealing with cancer.
"We had the opportunity to obtain the assets of a gown sales business," said Carl W. Ritter, president and CEO of Center for Building Hope, 5481 Communications Parkway.
The gown resale business seemed like a solid proposition to Ritter, who thought the center had the skill set to take it to another level.
"Without Brides Against Breast Cancer, Center for Building Hope would not have a balanced budget," Ritter said. "It's a good way to cover costs, rather than constantly reaching out to the same pockets."
Mark Pritchett, senior vice president for community investment for Gulf Coast Community Foundation, said when center officials presented their proposal to acquire Brides, it had potential to pay for the nonprofit's programs. And the proposal fit well with GCCF philosophy: "Our goal is to maximize return on investment and transform our region through bold and proactive philanthropy."
But before providing a low-interest loan, GCCF, born from the sale of the Venice Hospital in 1995, wanted to discuss terms, see the business plan and make sure the Center did its due diligence, Pritchett said.
"We don't do many of these. We have a high threshold for granting loans and it has to be something that will be transformative for the organization and that they have the potential to carry out," Pritchett said.
Impressed by what they saw, GCCF officials advanced the loan to the Center for Building Hope.
Jim Braun, chairman of the Center for Building Hope Board, said donations dried up when the nonprofit ran head on into the Great Recession.
"It's a very difficult business model when you do things for free. We needed a more sustainable business model," Braun said. "Carl Ritter and the entire staff worked tirelessly and with great enthusiasm to bring this to reality."Pritchett said he has been impressed with the communication from the center and its promptness in paying off the loan.
"They have been a strong nonprofit in our region that has done wonderful things for families with cancer in their midst. We congratulate them for being innovative in diversifying their revenues to support those programs," Pritchett said.
The loans are scheduled to be paid off in 2015.
In addition to underwriting its programs, the Brides Against Breast Cancer added 30 good-paying jobs in the community, and is looking to add another 20 in the next two years, Ritter said.
Vanessa Pedersen does several gown shows a month across the country. She coordinates with the venue and local vendors, including caterers, florists and photographers, and promotes the shows.
The gowns, all of which have been cleaned and reconditioned, sell for between $99 and $3,500. The average is $600. Brides has about 5,000 gowns in its inventory, with more being donated all the time.
Brides also has a boutique at 6279 Lake Osprey Drive, which is open by appointment.
Center for Building Hope was founded in 1996 in Sarasota as The Wellness Community and moved to Lakewood Ranch in 2011.
Since moving to Lakewood Ranch, the number of participants have quadrupled, and nearly 3,000 people regularly participate in the Center's programs, according to center officials.
Cancer survivor Rich Reskow, 73, of Lakewood Ranch, is a volunteer at Center for Building Hope.
"Every time I go to that place, I just feel so alive. It's like a big weight being lifted off me," Reskow said.
A front-desk volunteer, Reskow said the center helps people deal with the devastating diagnosis of cancer.
"These people are distraught and are looking for some kind of support and someone to talk to," Reskow said. "I absolutely love this group. I can't get enough of this center."
Another cancer survivor, East Manatee resident Marcia Petersen, said she learned about the center when it was in Sarasota. It was at a time in her life when she needed emotional support and exercise, she said.
She enrolled in a Pilates class geared for people being treated for cancer and on medication.
"We were just pushed to enjoy ourselves. It gives one an opportunity to try things out without a financial burden. The environment there is so relaxing and regrouping," Petersen said.
"So many don't have access to facilities like that in communities where they live. We are very fortunate. It has improved my quality of life. I carry their brochures and will hand them out at the supermarket or the doctors office," she said. "It's a wonderful service. The community should be very proud to have them here."
The center is now working to launch Network for Building Hope.
"The world of bricks and mortar has been transformed into a world where information and services can be shared virtually anywhere, with anyone," The center announced in a statement.
The center would partner with Ringling College of Art and Design and Moffitt Cancer Center in the network, according to the statement.
The projected cost for the first two years would be $1 million, raised by a combination of events, grants, advertising revenue, affiliate fees and national donors.
Ritter envisions rolling out 180 micro-events around the country to help fund the network and a new staff of five. The Network is projected to be self supporting within three years of its launch.
Information: 941-221-5539 or email@example.com.
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter: @jajones1.