Former Dothan Mayor Mike Schmitz can recollect volumes of stories of how the Wiregrass Foundation has provided a boost to the quality of life of area residents.
A major economic development project first emerges in his mind.
“When unemployment was so high, the Wiregrass Foundation stepped up and helped with some major airport improvements – which allowed us to recruit Commercial Jet,” he said. “That was an incredible gift for the city.”
Then Schmitz’s stories keep rolling: the Dothan-Houston County Library System revamping, the Wiregrass Public Safety Center construction, the Forever Wild trail enhancements – and those are just the major efforts. The foundation also provides microgrants (less than $10,000) to area nonprofit groups.
“What they do gives a lot of people a hand up in many ways,” Schmitz said.
What makes the Wiregrass Foundation, itself a nonprofit, so effective? One obvious reason is the volume of money at its discretion – about $100 million at any given point, said Dr. Barbara Alford, Wiregrass Foundation president.
Even more than that, though, is the thorough grant application process groups must complete before the foundation decides to award the money.
“Anything that has to do with buying personnel or buying big pieces of equipment, those things get scrutiny,” Alford said. “The question is ‘So what?’ If we do this, what can we expect to happen that’s different? Basically we don’t want to fund the status quo. We want to fund something that will push just a little bit.”
How did such a valuable resource develop in the first place? The story begins with a group of pioneers who launched Wiregrass Hospice – the first such organization of its type in the region.
While the founders obtained a lot of success with the hospice group, they decided to sell the company in 2005 when they realized bigger organizations could handle those needs in the market, Alford said. The sale netted about $90 million, but since the hospice had utilized federal healthcare funds to operate, the founders could not pocket the money themselves.
Instead of giving the money all away at once, the group decided to create a grant-making foundation that could give to the area “in perpetuity,” Alford said. Thus, the Wiregrass Foundation was born.
The format has worked – despite a recession that cause the foundation’s holdings to dip to about $68 million last decade.
“The proceeds off the investment allow us to invest in the community. We don’t have to solicit funds. We don’t do galas. We don’t take contributions,” she said. “To date, we’ve done about $68 million in investment in the community, and that includes the $20 million we’ve given to the safety center.”
Since the economy bottomed out, the foundation’s portfolio has strengthened thanks to good investments. Alford said its board of directors empowers a committee of four of its members and Alford to make the investment decisions, though the group consults outside advisers for insight.
The investment committee conducts meetings every two months usually but will meet more often if market conditions dictate, Alford said.
Making money count
Laws dictate the foundation must donate at least 5 percent of its value each year, or roughly $5 to $6 million annually, said Wiregrass Foundation board member Steve Shaw. Despite its massive holdings, the Wiregrass Foundation scrutinizes projects – especially the major ones – it considers funding.
“We recognize that even with $100 million – and giving out $5 or $ 6 million a year – we can’t solve everything right here,” Alford said. “If we don’t focus, 10 or 20 years from now we’re gonna look back and say, ‘We did a lot of good stuff, but nothing has changed. We’re still dealing with poverty issues, crime issues, education issues.
“It’s the easiest thing to do to give away money. It’s also the hardest to do to make sure we get it right.”
For some of the smaller projects, nonprofits apply for funding through the Wiregrass Foundation’s website. Large-scale projects usually develop over time via conversations with various leaders, Alford noted.
Grant applications must be filed six weeks before the board meeting in which the proposal will be considered, giving the foundation staff five weeks to research, analyze and ask the applicants any questions they perceive the board will ask.
Alford then presents the board with a portfolio of proposals a week ahead of the meeting, giving the members time to review them, Shaw said.
“A lot of people call for money for operating costs. We don’t want to invest in something that’s floundering,” he said. “Now, if it’s a growing nonprofit, we’ll gladly invest in them – but we challenge those nonprofits. We won’t fund it 100 percent. We want them to work with us.”
Schmitz saw that firsthand with the foundation’s investment in the local library system. The Wiregrass Foundation provided half of the upgrade costs, and other area residents responded with major contributions.
“Their investment allowed other private investments,” Schmitz said. “They want to make sure the community’s bought in.”
The result accomplished what the foundation wanted, Alford said.
“Libraries – we just didn’t want to build a library. We wanted to change how libraries function,” she said. “‘So what?’ It just keeps coming up. You go out to those libraries, and there are kids sitting all over the floor doing all kinds of stuff and parents reading to their kids. It changed the face of libraries.”
A big next step
Alford believes the Wiregrass Foundation’s largest project to date – the Wiregrass Public Safety Center – will have the same effect in several areas. By the time the center is functional later this year, the foundation will have invested $20 million into a facility that not only provides a wide range of training opportunities for area first responders but likely also forges deeper relationships within the community.
“We started looking at training as a community engagement opportunity,” she said. “If the public can see and experience (it), what does that do to the dialogue between citizens and police and fire? Does it change that tension that seems to exist? We think it will.”
Conversations about the center began a few years ago when Schmitz – now the chairman of the Dothan City Board of Education – was still the mayor. Dothan’s police and fire departments were about to lose their training facilities due to construction at the nearby Omussee Wastewater Treatment Plant.
Dothan Police Chief Steve Parrish and Dothan Fire Chief Larry Williams approached Alford about building a small facility on Ennis Road – just enough to get the first responders out of the rain when on the training grounds. Alford dreamed bigger – and so did the foundation’s board.
“We gave them three options when we got through with about a year’s worth of (research). We gave the board three options: the $12 million option, the $16 million option and the $20 million option,” Alford said. “They did not blink (at $20 million). They said, ‘If we’re going to do this, we’re going to make it a regional destination for Dothan.’”
In addition to enhancing community relations and economic development opportunities, Alford and other officials envision connecting various healthcare and education aspects to the facility. Those, along with quality of life improvements, have been core to the foundation’s focus since its inception.
“We’re now looking at ‘We have this huge facility. What can we do to amplify the career development opportunities of kids in eighth grade through junior college?’” Alford said. “We’re starting to think how we link that facility with the nursing and health programs at Wallace and the training and programs at ACOM. What happens there is a continuum from training to first responders to the actual triage done by doctors.”
Because of that big-picture focus, projects like the Wiregrass Public Safety Center embody why the Wiregrass Foundation has made a vast impact on several lives in the area.
“This center is going to be state of the art not just because we’re building stuff. We’re building the content underneath it,” Alford said. “That’s how we function here. It’s not about what. It’s about ‘So what?’ You built it, so what did it do?’”