A new sign announcing “The Philanthropy Center” went up this month at the old Chamber of Commerce building on Riverside Avenue.
The landmark building – with its distinctive Italianate columns – is the new home of Empire Health Foundation. In the warm, light-filled space, the foundation’s staff and community leaders will grapple with solutions to pressing social issues, such as reducing obesity rates, helping families stay together and improving access to health care.
“We want people flowing through this building,” said Antony Chiang, the foundation’s president. “I want it to be a hub of nonprofit collaboration and learning.”
Empire Health Foundation spent about $2.7 million on the building’s purchase and renovation. It was a big step for the region’s largest charitable foundation, which manages an $86 million endowment earmarked for improving health outcomes in seven Eastern Washington counties. Chiang said he wants the foundation to be known for its work, not a glitzy office space.
But two years ago, he was at a crossroads. The lease was expiring for the foundation’s below-market-rate rented quarters. Architect Sue Lani Madsen, the foundation’s board president, encouraged Chiang to think about how “saving a historic building” on Riverside could further the foundation’s mission while giving it a permanent home.
“She said, ‘Here’s this amazing historic boulevard with empty buildings. What a shame. Let me plant a seed,’ ” said Chiang, recalling the conversation.
Madsen had recently toured the chamber building with her mom, who remembered attending North Central High School’s prom in the downstairs ballroom. Madsen saw potential in the 1930 brick building tucked between the Spokane Club and the Masonic Center. The foundation frequently rented space for large meetings. The ballroom could provide that.
“I think this building might have the space we’re looking for,” she told Chiang. But it wasn’t a quick decision. “It had those ugly, invisible challenges that are sometimes the death of old buildings,” Madsen said.
About 70 percent of the remodeling costs went into bringing the building up to code, including overhauling the plumbing, mechanical and electrical systems and installing an elevator.
Earlier this month, about 35 employees moved into the renovated space at 1020 W. Riverside. The interior has a strikingly modern feel, thanks to an open design and generous amounts of natural light.
A large skylight – painted over during World War II – was restored, providing natural light for the main level. The ballroom is in a daylight basement that faces Main Avenue, with two banks of windows.
“We kept telling the architect, ‘It can’t look ostentatious,’ ” Chiang said.
“It’s going to be cost-conscious,” Marian Evenson, a principal in MMEC Architecture and Interiors, finally told him, “but it’s going to look amazing.”
In addition to Empire Health Foundation staff, the building houses employees of Better Health Together, a subsidiary, and other nonprofits, including Washington Bikes and the Spokane Tribal Network.
The ballroom will host its first large meeting on April 30, a symposium on improving dental care for adults and children.
For about a year, the foundation will offer the meeting space free of charge to like-minded groups, Chiang said. After the foundation gets a handle on costs, it will rent out the ballroom on a break-even or subsidized basis.
He visited other nonprofit centers in Portland, New York and San Francisco during the planning for the building’s renovation. “In Portland, they have a waiting list every week for use of their common space,” Chiang said.
Empire Health Foundation was created in 2008 with proceeds from the sale of two nonprofit hospitals - Deaconess Medical Center and Valley Hospital - to Fortune 500 company Community Health Systems Inc. In 2013, the endowment nearly doubled with a $40 million donation from Providence Health Care.
The foundation provides about $4 million each year for addressing pressing health-related issues in the seven Eastern Washington counties. This year, it will manage another $14 million in grants and matching funds.
“This building gives us a certain presence,” Madsen said. “We’re fairly young, but we intend to stick around. We’re serious about this commitment to a healthier community.”
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