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Former Sonoma police chief John Gurney gets a grip on SCC

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Chili Bowl Express X 3

Vegan or meat chili with toppings and corn bread, served in more than 600 handmade bowls from local artists: attendees can choose and keep the bowl.

Featured this year are ceramic umbrella stands, made by students in the classes. About 20 will be avialable for silent auction, or at a “buy it now” price.

There will also be live music, studio tours and demonstrations, wine, culinary and one-of-a-kind art raffle items.

Saturday, Feb. 10, at the Sonoma Community Center. Three seatings including lunches at 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., dinner at 5 pm.

Tickets $30 in advance at sonomacommunitycenter.org/chili-bowl.html

John Gurney, like many current and former policemen, has a pleasant demeanor and a firm grip. Both serve him well as the current executive director of the Sonoma Community Center.

Since coming on board in mid-summer last year, the 62-year-old former Sonoma Police Chief has been grappling with the plethora of good works the community center does – classes for all ages, from school-age to seniors; drama productions on the Andrews Hall stage from Sonoma Arts Live; fitness classes including ballet from Molly Spencer, the SCC’s receptionist; and a new set of movement classes to take up the slack from when En-er-gy Fitness went out of business last week.

It’s a lot to manage, and to some degree it all ends up on his desk.

“The executive director of the SCC is responsible for the operations and presentation of everything that we do,” said Gurney. “There’s a lot going on here routinely. We have ongoing programs, one-day workshops, we rent space to people to make presentations, we lease space to other organizations…”

All that, and the ongoing stress of finding an income to match the nonprofit’s budget and goals. For the past several years that budget has hovered around $1 million a year, aside from a downturn in 2015-2016 when the City of Sonoma pulled back on its commitment to the SCC, and began to re-evaluate their support for four “Tier 1” community nonprofits.

Never a permanent arrangement, those Tier 1 funds often went to organizations providing parks-and-recreation-style services, since Sonoma does not have such a department like many cities do. “They have always relied for as long as I can remember on the nonprofit organizations in the community to provide the recreation element,” said Gurney.

Cathy Capriola acknowledged as much, saying that when she first came into the City Manager position a year ago, she had discussions with the council and community members about what she called a “foundation approach” to city funding. “There was the need to look strategically at this program — to simplify and recognize that cities traditionally provide recreation service,” said Capriola. “However in Sonoma, our local nonprofits provide these services.”

“What we offer are very much recreation-oriented classes, activities and seminars,” said Gurney. Trying to fulfill that role, and preserve the viability of SCC to operate year-round, is one of the challenges he faces.

“The way to do that is offer some kind of contract for services,” Gurney said. “If the City were to contract for services, then the City can fulfill that recreation requirement that does exist in the community.”

Case in point: the yoga classes taught by Lynn Weinberger for the past 10 years.

“I love the SCC,” said Weinberger. “I have seen several directors during my time of teaching. All have been supportive and helpful, never more than now.”

But SCC does more than fulfill a parks and rec role in Sonoma. “The original vision of Dr. Andrews was the SCC as a gathering place for all kinds of different groups – and it’s still that,” said Gurney. Carrol Andrews led the 1952 effort to save and rehabilitate the old Sonoma Grammar School, built in 1915 but condemned in 1949 due to seismic concerns.

The SCC now serves the city with a gamut of classes and opportunities, from ceramics to fine arts to fiber arts and even performing arts, in the appropriately-named Andrews Hall. It also houses a school, the Crescent Montessori for preschoolers to eighth grade, and a number of classes suitable to the senior community.

Chili Bowl Express X 3

Vegan or meat chili with toppings and corn bread, served in more than 600 handmade bowls from local artists: attendees can choose and keep the bowl.

Featured this year are ceramic umbrella stands, made by students in the classes. About 20 will be avialable for silent auction, or at a “buy it now” price.

There will also be live music, studio tours and demonstrations, wine, culinary and one-of-a-kind art raffle items.

Saturday, Feb. 10, at the Sonoma Community Center. Three seatings including lunches at 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., dinner at 5 pm.

Tickets $30 in advance at sonomacommunitycenter.org/chili-bowl.html

While weekends and evening classes are common, so too are midday and midweek classes – like the Raku Boxes ceramics class that starts next month, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Mondays. It’s an awkward time for anyone with a fixed work schedule.

“We serve a wide spectrum of folks,” Gurney said, adding that “to spend a good deal of time in our studios requires a certain amount of flexibility that only older folks have the time to enjoy.”

Gurney and his wife Phyllis have long been familiar in city circles. He served on the boards of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Sonoma Valley, Speedway Children’s Charities and La Luz among others. “It’s important for people to understand that Sonoma is a special place,” he said. “What the community has to offer, whether in local government or the non-profit community – everybody is woven together to provide a community experience that is rare to find.”

As executive director of the Sonoma Community Center, Gurney is faced not only with preserving the good things that SCC provides for the Sonoma community, but with keeping it going, too. “(People) get a lot of year-end emails from nonprofits asking for your support,” he said. “That’s not a mistake. The future is tenuous for nonprofit organizations, the model is struggling. I don’t know what the solution is, but there’s got to be a better model.”

Meanwhile, he points out the ongoing success of many of SCC’s most popular programs, such as ceramics. The “newest, shiniest thing around here” is a kiln, he said, which arrived last year with great fanfare. SCC has a rotating “chair” for a ceramics artist-in-residence, the newest of whom is Naomi Clement of Nova Scotia, who will meet the community at a potluck on Jan. 17.

The success of the ceramics program, Gurney believes, could be applied to other programs as well. “Certain things that that program has been very successful at are engaging the public and marketing ceramics,” he said, such as by using social media. He’d like to take the success of the ceramics program and expand it to other programs.

Kala Stein, who has headed the ceramics program at SCC for more than two years, is putting the finishing touches on her third Chili Bowl Express fundraiser, set for Feb. 10. A $30 ticket gives the attendee not only a bowl of handmade chili but the bowl it comes in, too, made in the SCC’s ceramics program.

“It’s like a huge family dinner party, three times in a day,” said Stein. But she said there’s only seating for 150 at each meal, and at three times a day they’ve reached their maximum.

The event is one of SCC’s most popular fundraisers, but it will take more than a few bowls of chili to keep the 65-year-old community center fulfilling its crucial role in Sonoma’s special community.

Contact Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.