The Yellow Barn: The challenge of maintaining a community space in Ann Arbor

Only one year after the Yellow Barn returned with new management and a new organizational structure, organizers aren't sure if the independent community center will make it another year.

Bill Gross, who used to live in the building just west of downtown Ann Arbor, began holding community events and concerts there in the early 2000s. The barn rose to greater prominence in 2007, when artist Britten Stringwell worked with Gross to create a monthly open mic event known as the Bizarre Dance. When Gross vacated the property last year due to what he describes as "disputes with the owners," Stringwell gathered a team to resurrect it. Last August Stringwell and her colleagues formed an L3C–a legal business entity that lands between an LLC and a nonprofit–to hold the lease. 

"We were like, 'If we can keep it running as a community center, can you give us a chance?'" Stringwell said.

But at press time it was uncertain whether Stringwell and her fellow organizers would be able to re-up for another year come the end of September. 

Organizers are undertaking a number of efforts to keep the barn moving forward. They hosted a rent party last weekend, and have another major fundraising event planned for September 28. They're considering options to add daytime programming during the work week, and Stringwell says the barn was recently offered a $10,000-$20,000 loan to fund paid staff positions. 

"We have a lot that's opening up for us in terms of having support," Stringwell says. "So we just need to figure out as a crew, can we physically sustain and keep this going with the other things we have going on in our lives?"

The year in review

While Gross previously paid the barn's rent as a resident (and the property's caretaker), organizers had to come up with some new ideas to make the facility economically viable when they revived it as a dedicated community center. They made an effort to drum up rental business in addition to the concerts, art shows and classes the barn was already known for. U-M student exhibitions have taken advantage of the barn's space in the past year. 

The barn has also continued a three-year rental relationship with the Greenroom alternative church (http://www.thegreenroom-annarbor.com/), which meets there weekly. Greenroom pastor Scott Crownover says the barn has provided an ideal space for his endeavors. 

"We're a really creative church," Crownover says. "We cater our services to the creative community. They really kind of experience spirituality, experience God, in a different way. When we looked at the Yellow Barn, we just saw a really great, open space that had the potential for anything we wanted to do."

While rentals and event cover charges have helped cover some of the barn's operating costs, they haven't been enough to put money in organizers' pockets. The barn pays a sound technician for its shows, but everyone else involved is a volunteer. Stringwell says four or five volunteers have formed the barn's core team, with a rotating cast of many others. She says there's been some "wear-out" among volunteers, a sentiment echoed by Dayringer.

"When you have a pretty good group of volunteers who are putting in a lot of hours making the thing run smoothly and be a nice place to come together, that also puts a lot of load on people," he says. "So [we're] just making sure we can continue to have the people who are volunteering feel supported and happy and not overloaded."

While the formation of the Yellow Barn L3C allowed the barn to reopen, it's also caused problems of its own. Dayringer says in the early stages the L3C option provided a more feasible alternative to forming a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.

"Essentially, we're behaving as a nonprofit," Dayringer says. "We really want to provide a service to this community and we're not trying to make money for shareholders or owners of the business or anything. But to apply to be a 501(c)(3) nonprofit is a pretty large amount of paperwork and costs at least a couple hundred dollars to just file for it. Especially right when we were getting started, we didn't feel like we had the capacity right there."

However, an L3C is not tax-exempt, cannot accept tax-exempt donations and is ineligible for most of the grants available to a nonprofit, leaving the barn cut off from several key ways to save and raise money. Dayringer says he's considered switching to nonprofit status to capitalize on grant opportunities, but that decision rested on whether the barn would remain open after September.

Keys to the future

So what will it take to keep the barn going for the long term? The key element is money–not only to pay the rent, but also to pay some staffers for their efforts. Stringwell says she was more of a "visionary" earlier in her involvement with the barn, and she'd like to hire a manager to handle some of the administrative duties she says she's "not the best at."

"I'm not horrible," she says. "I'm learning a lot. But I do think if we brought in a general manager that could get paid to really manage every aspect of all of these systems and people, that's done that before, that's managed a community center before, that wants to do that, and that is really good at it–that could really benefit us as a community organization."

Gross says in his years managing the barn, most events didn't make money and he didn't expect them to.

"Where I come from, you kind of know that you're not making money at it," Gross says. "You're not doing it to make money. You're doing it because you love whatever you're doing, and you do what you have to to be able to do that."

Despite its current struggles, the community arts center the barn provides is still one of a kind in Ann Arbor. 

"I think it's just so important, especially in a community like this," Crownover says. "Without the Yellow Barn, without this kind of a space for people to utilize – to be honest, there's not that many areas within Ann Arbor where people can do that."

Dayringer says there's a "hunger" for more community arts outlets like the barn, citing the huge popularity of the Water Hill Music Fest. But, he notes, that event doesn't require a lot of money, which is "sometimes what it comes down to."

"It's expensive to keep a space going in this city, because there are lots of other groups out there competing for rent, so somebody will take it," he says.

In the meantime, organizers maintain that they want to provide for their community's needs. The general public is welcome to attend and give input at weekly organizational meetings each Sunday at noon.

"The Yellow Barn is here, and we really do have this opportunity to keep it going really strong," Dayringer says. "We just need more of that community support. We need people to come in and let us know what they need in this space."

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Metromode and Concentrate.

All photos by Doug Coombe

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