During the spring and summer seasons, the community center at Heritage Park in Mount Sinai would see an abundance of residents stopping in to take a break from the park or to join in the plethora of events held there. That all changed with COVID-19, and with no indication on when it can reopen, members of nonprofit Heritage Trust, which oversees the park, say they may need to reinvent themselves in order for them and the center to survive.
Victoria Hazan, president of the organization, said right now is usually their busy season at the community center. They would normally have a number of classes, events, parties and receptions held in the building.
“We usually have tons of things going on during the week, there’s Zumba, country line dancing, cooking classes, the local church and civic association use the space as well,” she said. “Before COVID-19 we were booked solid through next April.”
Renting out the community center space is a major revenue source for nonprofit and it helps pay for other expenses. Without that option, it will be tougher to be able to pay for rent and insurance payments.
Since closing in March, the organization has refunded deposits back to planned renters.
“Those issues just don’t go away, our insurance on the building is extremely high,” Hazan said.
The organization was able to get a three-month deferment of its mortgage payments, but that ends in July.
Another funding avenue that the organization relies on is their regular fundraising events. This year they were unable to put on the annual spring carnival, one of the park’s main fundraising sources. That revenue from the carnival helps them host other events including the Christmas tree lighting and Halloween festival.
Given the financial strains from COVID-19, the nonprofit may be forced to change how it operates. This year, the trust was planning to celebrate its 20th anniversary since its inception.
Lori Baldassare, the founding director of the organization, said they have looked at consolidating with other local nonprofits, as well as combining resources and staff. They have talked to North Shore Youth Council about possibly sharing some of the community center space.
In addition, members are still trying to find creative ways to host some type of events for the time being. One idea would be a drive-in movie night or a virtual fundraising concert held at the community center, where only performers would be in the building and residents could watch from their homes.
“Logistically it would be difficult to pull off but it’s something,” Baldassare said. “The community center fills a void for a lot of people.”
The group hopes the community can come to their aid. One of the issues the trust has faced over the years is that residents don’t necessarily know how they operate and mistakenly think the Heritage Park is run by Brookhaven Town or Suffolk County. Brookhaven workers generously supply general maintenance of the baseball field and grass cutting to the park, but the center and playground are owned by the trust, and all other landscaping, such as the flower plantings, are all done by volunteers.
Baldassare said it has been a messaging issue but hopes if people learn where the funding comes from and what they’ve been offering to the community, individuals would be willing to make donations.
The two agreed that the trust may need to change how they operate post-COVID-19.
“I don’t see us coming out the same way we were before coronavirus,” Baldassare said. “We can’t just think nothing will happen, we want to continue to provide a sense of place for the community and I hope we have a path forward to do that.”
Hazan is concerned of how the community center will fare once the pandemic and shutdown is over.
“I don’t foresee many people being comfortable at a big event like a wedding or reception,” she said. “There will probably be baby steps along the way.”
Possible capacity restrictions could be another obstacle for the group.
“Not a lot of people are going to want to rent out a place like the center with just limited capacity,” Hazan said. “We’re worried, we’ve worked so hard over the years to get where we are, and I would hate to see it go away.”