LAKEWOOD RANCH -- The troubled Center for Building Hope fired 22 workers this week at Brides Against Breast Cancer, cutting its losses on an operation that had become too complex and too costly.
The most recent firings follow five earlier ones, including CEO Carl Ritter and two of his grown children. Ritter's annual compensation package had grown to $335,291, even while the nonprofit was defaulting on its $2-million-plus mortgage, and reporting deficits for several years.
The firings leave Center for Building Hope with a staff of about 10 and an uncertain future.
On Wednesday, Ron Gelbman, a retired corporate executive who once served as worldwide chairman for $15 billion in business interests for the Johnson & Johnson company, spoke about the challenges facing the nonprofit.
Gelbman, whose resume includes service on the boards of the Out-of-Door Academy, Rollins College and Sarasota Healthcare Foundation, among others, was brought on board to serve without
compensation to help "right the ship."
Working with board co-chairs Carol Ann Kalish and Brian Mariash, Gelbman is now making the hard decisions to try keeping Center for Building Hope afloat.
The future seems uncertain considering the center has hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt it cannot repay immediately plus a mortgage of more than $2 million and a $500,000 loan to Gulf Coast Community Foundation due Dec. 31.
Mark Pritchett, senior vice president for community investment for Gulf Coast Community Foundation, has told the Bradenton Herald a donor is willing to write a check on the loan should the center default.
Gelbman became involved Aug. 1 with the meltdown at Center for Building Hope when Veronica Brady, senior vice president for philanthropy at Gulf Coast Community Foundation, reached out to him with concerns about the nonprofit.
"I met with Carol Ann Kalish and Brian Mariash and spent Saturday afternoon, Sunday and Monday going through all the financials," Gelbman said. Kalish and Mariash were named co-chairs after Ritter was fired and the previous board chairman resigned.
Gelbman also brought in an accountant to help determine the scope of the problem.
The first decision made was to close much of the Brides Against Breast Cancer used-bridal gown sales operation staging between 130 and 150 shows annually around the United States.
"It got cumbersome and the cash flow was a problem," Gelbman said.
The Brides Against Breast cancer boutique at 6279 Lake Osprey Drive was open Wednesday, but will probably be relocated to the Center for Building Hope campus at 5481 Communications Parkway.
While a halt has been called to the bridal gown road shows, the celebrity bartending fundraisers at local restaurants and bars will continue, Gelbman said.
"The events, we'll keep going. I've asked the team that's left to wipe the board clean and reimagine. Maybe we can do it a different way," he said.
Other shoes may drop, but probably the biggest ones have already fallen, he said.
"Layoffs are always awful, you feel terrible. You have changed the short-term trajectory of their lives."
Going forward, directors envision an operation with special fundraisers such as celebrity bartenders, grants and events for local donors.
Collecting those donations will be challenging as some of the wealthiest contributors from Bradenton-Sarasota, among them Rep. Vern Buchanan, have taken notice of the turmoil at Center for Building Hope.
Gelbman said he has taken a number of angry calls from donors.
"I am talking to some of these donors, and I tell them I understand their anger. I think I have a lot of credibility with people in the community who know me. I hope that will encourage them to get back on board again," Gelbman said.
Among the Center for Building Hope's community partners and sponsors are Manatee Community Foundation, Manatee Memorial Hospital, Blake Medical Center, Moffitt Cancer Center, and Renaissance on 9th, according to the center's website.
"I really believe in this not-for-profit," Gelbman said of the Center for Building Hope, which provides free services and support to cancer patients and their families.
Pritchett has previously praised the center for its mission and work.
The board of directors, however, fell short by allowing the center to get into financial trouble, he said.
"They have clearly defined duties that they need to execute," Pritchett said previously.
When Ritter was fired, two members of the board of directors, Chairman James Braun and board member David Shaver, resigned.
Marilyn Howard, executive director of the Manatee Community Foundation, called the problems at the center a tragedy.
"This is a textbook example of what can happen without good oversight and good governance," Howard said.
Directors have a duty to provide oversight, and it's not easy, she said.
"It's a cautionary tale for other nonprofits. The services are needed and they need to be done in a way that is transparent so that everyone can see where the money is and where it's going," Howard said.
Manatee Community Foundation has awarded several grants to the center in the range of $2,500 in recent years to support programs for cancer patients and their families, Howard said.
Can the center overcome its challenges?
"I am not sure the center can survive. Time will tell," Gelbman said.
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter @jajones1.