When I arrive at a meeting of the Kiwanis Club of Bradenton, I’m not sure if I’ve come to the right place. This well-worn, 1950s-era hall off a grim stretch of U.S. Business 41 hardly seems like the setting for one of the region’s best-known service clubs. But men and women, some in suits, others in casual dress, are walking in, so I follow the crowd and take a seat at an empty table inside. Before the gavel hits, lunch is served. It’s school cafeteria fare, complete with a serving of creamed corn, but my fellow diners don’t complain. They eat happily, filling the air with chatter and easy laughter.
I try to take notes, but keep getting interrupted. Kiwanians notice me sitting alone and come up to shake my hand and introduce themselves. A politician. A preacher. Two students from the Manatee High Key Club, here to thank the club for a grant. It’s impossible not to feel comfortable with these folks. Like their dress code, Bradenton’s Kiwanians seem like a relaxed, unpretentious group with a hearty, just-folks attitude.
But don’t underestimate them.
This is one of the most successful Kiwanis clubs in the nation. The membership roll, which includes bank presidents, top attorneys, real estate moguls and other power brokers, reads like a Who’s Who of Manatee County. Politicians make a point of showing up at its meetings. This club’s roughly 215 members have bigger things to think about than lunch.
They think about doing good. Then they do it.
David Klement is the director of the University of South Florida’s Institute for Public Policy and Leadership and the longtime former opinion page editor of The Bradenton Herald. He notes that, “I’ve lived in Manatee County for 33 years. All that time, it’s been the premier civic club in the region. Everyone who was anyone was a member. It’s a club of movers and shakers—both the older generation and the new generation of leadership coming up. The Kiwanis Club of Bradenton has had a hand in much of the good that’s been done in this community. They get things done.”
In the 2006-2007 fiscal year, the club donated $411,000 to charitable organizations; it also awarded a total of $607,100 to 47 students through its scholarship program. That was a good year, but fairly typical. The beneficiaries of the club’s largesse include social service organizations, some of which it started, like the Bradenton’s Boys and Girls Club, the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, and Keep Manatee Beautiful. The Kiwanis Club of Bradenton extends generous support to such arts and cultural groups as the Manatee Players and Arts Council of Manatee County. It also gives through internal outreach organizations targeting different age groups: Circle K, Key Kids and others. It funds existing scholarships and creates new ones, including a recent $60,000 grant to the Manatee Technical Institute. In 1988, the club jump-started construction of the Manatee County Civic Center with a $500,000 pledge. Besides giving cash, members roll up their sleeves and perform thousands of hours of volunteer work. They give locally—and globally, too, to causes such as the medical efforts of Hearts Afire, Kiwanis International’s iodine deficiency program and ongoing hurricane- and disaster-relief efforts.
The list goes on, but you get the idea.
This club gives.
More than it should be able to, according to its immediate past president, optometrist Dr. Brian Murphy.
“Bradenton is a wonderful community, but it’s not the richest community,” he says. “What we give is all out of proportion.”
How is that possible?
According to Murphy, it’s a happy consequence of history.
“It’s not that our hearts are bigger,” he says. “It’s like choosing your parents—you can’t. We’re blessed with good parents; we can’t take credit for them. Our forefathers from the 1930s were men of vision—they made it possible. We’re still riding on their coattails today.”
Murphy gives a history lesson.
In the 1930s, the city of Bradenton was broke. Elected officials saw no way out. Kiwanis Club members—visionaries like Robert Beall (founder of Bealls Department Store), Kay Rowlett and others—saw an opportunity. What did they see?
A trailer park.
“It was the era of the Airstream Gypsy,” explains Murphy. “Each winter, thousands of tourists were passing us by. They had no place to stay in Bradenton.”
The club pitched the idea of providing a place for those tourists, and the city agreed.
In 1936, the club leased a city-owned lot at 14th Street and financed construction of a trailer park. The lots filled up with renters, and Bradenton’s coffers filled up with cash—ad valorem taxes, paid by the club on its rental property.
“The club kept the city out of bankruptcy,” Murphy notes proudly.
The club also had provided affordable housing. What began as a tourist stop became a permanent home for many new residents with modest incomes. Rents remained dirt cheap. Even so, the park made money. In 1946, the club paid off its debt and bought the land. The park kept growing, becoming the largest trailer park in the world by 1950. Rental income grew, too.
The club plowed that income back into the community. All those charities it created? That income made it possible.
Workers had houses; the city had tax revenue; the club had money to give away. It was win-win for all. Who could possibly object?
The Internal Revenue Service. In 1962, the IRS told the club to pay taxes on park revenues. Club members resisted for decades, arguing successfully that they were the good guys. But in 1996, the IRS threatened to take the Kiwanis Club to court for back taxes and penalties dating back to 1936, largely on the basis that the Kiwanis couldn’t be a nonprofit and run a taxable enterprise at the same time.
“We were out of the trailer park business,” says Murphy.
The club sold the park to its residents in 1997. It used the $8 million in proceeds to set up the Foundation of the Kiwanis Club of Bradenton, which has now grown to around $11 million.
Thanks to that foundation, the club keeps up its good works today.
I’m thinking about that history when a man in his late 50s with a newspaper background approaches me.
I nod. He points to my notebook.
He’s wearing a huge name tag but gives me his name anyway—Steve Wilson. I do the same. We shake hands and he sits.
“I got your story for you,” he says.
“Bowling Alone. Ever read it?”
“Parts of it. It’s about how disconnected people are getting from each other, right?”
“Well, that’s your story. No man is an island, but Americans are turning into islands—with the exception of clubs like this. But how long can that go on? Look at the building we’re in. Look at all the gray hairs.”
He stops to think.
“Those teen-agers you were talking to? We’re building their future. At the same time, they represent our future. Twenty-five years from today, will they still be Kiwanis members? That’s your story.”
Today’s guest speaker is Dr. Joseph Pecoraro, the president of Hearts Afire, a medical outreach to Third-World countries. They pass out Bibles, too, but judging by the speaker, they’re not pushy. Pecoraro gives us a PowerPoint presentation, supplying the narrative because the sound isn’t working. His lectern is surrounded by blown-up photos of African children. Children also dominate his slideshow. They’re the focus of Pecoraro’s ministry.
If the Bowling Alone theory is true, they’re also the future of Kiwanis.
After the meeting, I mention this theory to Dr. Mary Cantrell, the director of Manatee Technical Institute and a member of the club’s board. She agrees.
“’We Build’ is still our motto,” she says. “But we have a new motto to go with it: ‘One Can Make a Difference,’ meaning a difference in the life of a child. The Kiwanis organization started out with a focus on bricks and mortar. Today, our focus is hearts and minds—building the future of the younger generation. But sometimes you need bricks and mortar to do that.”
For the Kiwanis Club of Bradenton, bricks and mortar are the challenge of the day. “They build.” But what they built in the past isn’t good enough. They’ve put their meeting hall on 14th Street up for sale. After it’s sold, the club plans to build a new facility.
Murphy, who was on the planning committee, paints a picture.
“It’d have a larger-capacity meeting room. And a real kitchen with real refrigerators—no more canned corn!” he says.
It would also provide rental office space. And if the club is able to realize its vision, the renters would be area social service agencies, many of which desperately need decent offices at a decent rent. Possible tenants include the Boys & Girls Club, United Way of Manatee County, YMCA and Habitat for Humanity.
“We see it as a multi-tenant, nonprofit, social service center along the lines of Sarasota’s Schoenbuam Human Services Center,” notes Murphy. “The Kiwanis Club of Bradenton would share a home with many other nonprofit organizations. We’d all be together under one roof.”
The idea isn’t set in stone, but Murphy thinks it’s a great idea. He points out the advantages the agencies would receive from this set-up. “Being together would help us pool their resources,” he says. “Agency clients would get a one-stop place to go. The agencies would get reduced rent at a savings of about $5.5 million a year, which could go back into their programs.”
“Ideally, we’d do a capital campaign and wind up with a debt-free building,” explains Philip Perrey, an attorney with Hamrick, Perrey, Quinlan & Smith, P.A., and the club’s president. “All the tenants would have to pay for would be the common area and maintenance charges.”
He stresses that the new building would not be a money-making proposition for the club. “It’s not a replacement for the trailer park,” he says. “Our goal is to empower other charities.”
“We’re still in the planning stages,” says another past president, Brenda Rogers. “We’re not sure if it’s realistic yet, but if it is, I’m all for it. It’ll help support the non-profits and the people who genuinely want to make a difference in the community.”
Cantrell thinks it’s a great idea—if people remember what it’s for.
“A building is a means to an end,” she notes. “We don’t suffer from the ‘edifice complex’ around here. We exist to serve people. If a building makes that possible, great. It’s not where our hearts are.”
She points to the blown-up photo of children at the front of the hall.
“That’s what we care about,” she says.