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Junior League of Tacoma weighs its options as economic woes spread

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Paul Schrag

SECOND CLOSET: Sales associate Brent Coe could be working from a different location in 2010.

Through nearly 90 years of service, Junior League of Tacoma has dedicated itself to building community through volunteerism and charity. But that could change by the end of this year.

A grass-roots, volunteer-driven community service organization, Junior League has provided educational programs, conducted supply drives, hosted television and radio shows, purchased hospital beds, granted scholarships, made meals, and generally worked tirelessly to build this city, or keep it from falling apart. Proudly led by some of Tacoma’s great women, the organization now joins nonprofit and charitable organizations nationwide in its struggle to stay afloat amidst declining donations, diminishing membership and estimations that things are likely to get worse before they get better.

“We’re not on our way to closing, but we are investigating our options,” says Junior League of Tacoma President-elect Gayle Selden. “It is something you have to think about. A nonprofit is just like running a business. In any economic hard times, you have to look for things to cut.”

Among programs facing closure is the Junior League Second Closet, an upper-crust, second-hand clothing store at Tenth and Pacific Avenue. The store opened its doors for the first time in 1930. The store was established in hopes of producing a regular, reliable stream of income for the organization and its myriad of causes. The store remained a cornerstone of the organization’s efforts for decades, and moved along with Junior League headquarters in 1994. At the time, the thrift store was netting about $20,000 and was run by JLT volunteers. By 1999, the store was pulling $38,000 and supported salaries for a manager and paid staff.

Fast forward a decade or so, and remember that the local and national economies have imploded.

Like many retailers, Second Closet saw declining revenues during crucial holiday months. A sales spike in January didn’t make up for what the store lost in November and December. Combined with declining membership, declining donations, increasing rent, and a struggling retail climate, the loss of store revenue now threatens the stability of the entire organization.

“It’s a vicious cycle,” says Selden. “People aren’t buying new stuff, so we’re not getting as much used stuff. Our shoppers are still coming in and buying. There’s just less for them to purchase.”

Junior League isn’t the only retailer struggling along Pacific Avenue. Stores have come and gone for years near the northernmost stretch of Pacific Avenue. Selden says she is pleased with rental rates. The real problem, she says, is lack of customers.

“The problem is that downtown Tacoma doesn’t breed as many customers as one would think,” she says. “We really wanted to be part of the resurgence of downtown, but that hasn’t panned out as fast as it could have. We have a ton of empty spaces down here.”

Selden is particularly concerned about the loss of Russell Investments employees, many of whom shop at the Second Closet. If Russell sets sail, it could sound a death knell for several businesses in the neighborhood, she speculates.

Currently, Selden and other Junior League administrators are weighing their options. During the next eight months, they will consider whether finding a new location will be worth standard costs of moving, which include training regular customers to shop at a new location.

“We are very happy where we are,” she says. “As we look at our options, we’re finding a lot more positives about where we are relative to where we could be. When there’s trouble, the first solution is always to find something cheaper. We would love to stay here. But we’re having difficulty affording it now. So if things [the economy] gets worse, where will we be?”

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