Las Vegas congregation battles economy to achieve dream
Posted: Nov. 22, 2012 | 2:02 a.m.
When the St. Simeon Serbian Orthodox congregation began building a new
church in 2007, it adopted a centuries-old style with the idea that the
building would be around at least that long.
"We don't want to go back to our people two or three times and say, we
made a mistake and need to build another one," said the Djordjo
Kupresak, the full-time caretaker for the current church and social hall
at 3950 S. Jones Blvd. "We want to make this church forever."
The dream, however, collided head-on with the economy of contemporary
Las Vegas. Work halted in spring 2009 while the church was still a
shell, as the money contributed by the congregation ran out, no bank
would underwrite a loan and no wealthy benefactor appeared with a check.
But rather than completely shut down, as has happened to projects across
the valley, St. Simeon turned to grass-roots fundraising efforts such as
dinners featuring different styles of Serbian food and a program to
encourage contributions of $1 a day. Not only have the donations paid
off all the debt but they have generated enough money to restart work
earlier this year to finish the top third of the exterior, distinguished
by its 100-foot tall copper-roofed dome and shorter bell tower cupola
with brown and beige tile.
At this point, said local engineer John Grujicic, who has taken on the
role of volunteer contractor, about $2 million has been spent on the
church with about that much more needed for completion. Instead of
pursuing a loan again in a slowly improving economy, he said the
congregation will continue its approach of self-reliance even though it
could extend the project a decade or more.
"In this economic climate, we are happy we don't have a loan where we
have to pay $15,000 a month," he said. "We want to make sure that this
property and this church stay with us."
'EVERYBODY WAS STRUGGLING'
Variations of St. Simeon's experience have played out among nonprofit
organizations all across the valley. Starting in 2007, then intensifying
the next three years, "Just about everybody was struggling because of
the compounding of the economy affecting donations as economic needs
rose at the same time," said Elliot Karp, CEO of the Jewish Federation
of Las Vegas.
In the past couple of years, nonprofits have seen a partial rebound, he
said. The federation's annual fund this year brought in $2.8 million,
more than double the nadir of $1.1 million in 2010 but less than the $4
million peak of six years ago.
While not familiar with St. Simeon, Karp said it is "inherently more
difficult" for individual congregations to raise money than larger
groups because of a smaller donor base.
St. Simeon's mailing list carries about 450 names, with attendance at
Christmas and Easter nearly doubling that. About 300 of those steadily
donate money. The large majority come from Bosnia, with many having fled
the Balkans war in the 1990s, and work hourly jobs in the visitor industry.
United Way of Southern Nevada has seen flat to slight growth in
contributions during recent years, anchored by about 30,000 people who
designate a $5 or $10 deduction in each paycheck, said CEO Cass Palmer.
But he has seen improvement recently as "people become more comfortable
about their job security."
By trying to develop steady income stream, "that is the way to go," said
Palmer, referring to St. Simeon. "I gotta commend them on their business
He has seen a number of nonprofits stumble or even fail because they
took on commitments or debt without the revenue to cover them.
TRADITIONAL STYLE SELECTED
St. Simeon has owned its land on South Jones Boulevard just north of
West Flamingo Road since the late 1970s, with its current nondescript
building dating to 1983. In the late 1990s, the congregation began
planning the new church to look like something plucked from the 16th
Century Balkans rather than in the modern style that predominates in Las
Vegas. They went in this direction despite a construction cost estimate
far higher than a contemporary design for such features as a copper
roof, rosette windows, three 10-foot-tall bronze crosses and a planned
plaster interior covered with frescoes of Orthodox icons.
By 2007, the congregation had raised about $1 million, but could not
secure a bank loans for a modestly sized congregation with some
white-collar professionals but mainly working-class people.
Nevertheless, the project went ahead even as the economy darkened.
It cost about $1.6 million to get the church to the point it was
enclosed and secure, forcing St. Simeon to borrow from its members
before stopping work in 2009. Grujicic said the debt had reach about
$400,000 at one point, but continued fundraising allow all the loans and
contractor bills to be covered the next year.
Then, the fundraising was geared to the future. The dinners, with menus
designed to highlight different regions of Bosnia, bring in about
$15,000-to-$20,000 each. Another time, St. Simeon tried a $50 per person
wine tasting, with the church as the backdrop.
The income from the dinners "is right in the sweet spot for events by
smaller groups," said Palmer. "They will generally make $8,500 to $20,000."
Some St. Simeon parishoners have talked about lining up prominent local
officials for fundraisers or perhaps some form of government financing,
but Grujicic downplays hopes along those lines.
As the funds build up, Grujicic's game plan calls for phases that
include installing lightning protection - one strike could melt the
entire copper roof, he said -finishing the middle third of the exterior,
then the bottom third, the surrounding grounds that are now dirt before
moving to the interior.
This strategy will remain in place, even though he is concerned that
construction costs could rise in the coming years. "We can't go anywhere
else for the money," he said. "This is our only option."
Contact reporter Tim O'Reiley at toreiley@...