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May 26, 2022

LGBTQ+ equality center to open new collaborative workplace

buildings and cars
Courtesy / Equality Community Center
Seen here is the building at 15 Casco St. with a concept image of a second Equality Community Center building next to it.

A new social justice center is getting ready to open its first collaborative workplace in Portland on June 1.

The Equality Community Center’s workplace, at 15 Casco St., is for LGBTQ+ and allied social justice seeking nonprofit organizations.

Norway Savings Bank recently donated $200,000 toward the center’s capital campaign to purchase and renovate its new building.

“We strive for the Equality Community Center to be a safer and more inclusive gathering space that provides social and educational programming for all, while supporting the most marginalized in our communities,” the center’s manager, Christopher O’Connor, said in a news release. “Without the support of businesses like Norway Savings Bank, we would not have been able to purchase and renovate this space into what we have envisioned for our community.”

5 people on steps
Courtesy / Norway Savings Bank
From left, Norway Savings Bank President and CEO Dan Walsh, Equality Community Center Executive Director Christopher O’Connor and board member Ed Gardner, and bank executives Janice de Lima and Carolyn Thomas at the center’s new quarters on Casco Street.

The center bought the 18,068-square-foot office building a year ago for $1.122 million. Tony McDonald and John Finegan of the Boulos Co. and Ed Gardner of Gardner Real Estate Group brokered the deal.

The building formerly housed Maine Savings Bank and offers office spaces, conference rooms and a first-floor great room for events, conferences, lectures and performances.  

The center strives to provide a safer and more inclusive gathering space and offers social and educational programming for all, while supporting the most marginalized in the communities.

$4 million capital campaign

The idea for the center was sparked in 2014, when a group of community members set out to explore how to fund the creation of an LGBTQ+ community center in Maine. They developed a financial plan and formed a board of directors in 2015. That December, they opened the Equality Community Center at 511 Congress St. in downtown Portland. The event marked the completion of Phase One of their vision.

Since opening, the center and its allied LGBTQ+ organizations have hosted hundreds of events and welcomed thousands of community members, families and allies.

In 2020, the center began to shape plans for Phase Two, which would included housing allied justice-seeking organizations under one roof. 

In March 2021, with the help of an angel donor, the center bought 15 Casco St.

The building required major renovations. The center launched a capital campaign to raise $4 million to ensure safety and full accessibility to all constituents. 

The center will include expanded programming, a coffee shop, shared and private workspace, community meeting and entertainment spaces.

The center currently houses EqualityMaine, GLSEN, MaineTransNet, PFLAG, Pride Portland!, and SAGE Maine, a program of EqualityMaine. Their programs are designed to support LGBTQ+ people through advocacy, education, community events, and support. The new location will serve as a new headquarters for LGBTQ+ and allied organizations and community members. 

Phase 3

Plans are in the works to build a second mixed-use building adjacent to 15 Casco St. The new structure is slated to include housing options geared toward LGBTQ+ older adults and vulnerable members of the community. The goal is to make available both reduced and market-rate rental units, retail space, and parking. Being co-located with the center at 15 Casco St. is expected to give residents easy access to our programs and services.

Initial planning for Phase 3 is underway, including raising the initial project funds through the center’s capital campaign.

The center is just over halfway to its capital campaign goal, O’Connor told Mainebiz. 

“We are currently in the leadership/major gifts phase of the campaign and will broaden the campaign to the full public this fall,” he said. “Our hope is to reach our final goal by December 2022."

Initially, the plan for Phase 2 was to build a new building that would have included retail space, two floors of community center space, and three to four floors of housing. 

“Through the initial development phase, we were also looking at buildings/properties that could have been renovated,” O’Connor said. 

At the beginning of 2021, the building at 15 Casco St. unexpectedly came on the market. The center had an angel donor make a donation that allowed it to purchase the building. “Our plans have now shifted to include a Phase 3 that entails an affordable housing complex in the parking lot that is located adjacent to 15 Casco,” he said.

The center is still in the thick of renovations at 15 Casco St.  The top priority was a new roof. 

“We're doing considerable work to make the building accessible, including adding a new accessible entrance with ramp, elevator repair, installations of stairlifts and major bathroom renovations,” O’Connor said. “The second floor of the building hadn't been used in about 10 years so we're installing new heat pumps and fresh air circulation systems.”

To be able to provide private office spaces for approximately 10 nonprofit organizations, the center is doing a considerable amount of construction work to meet tenant needs.  

The building, formerly the original Maine Savings Bank, "was fairly dated so we're also in the midst of a lot of aesthetic improvements including paint, carpets and LED lighting,” he said. “The other major project that has been completed is the installation of a security alarm and surveillance system. The safety of our tenants and community members is of the utmost importance and the security systems help us create a safer physical environment for everyone using the space.”

Looking ahead, the next stage of renovations later this summer includes the installation of a building-wide sprinkler fire safety system. 

“This will not only provide us with an even more safe physical plant, but also allow us to reclassify the building as an event space with the city of Portland, giving us greater capacity to host community events, meetings, conferences and more,” he said. 

A commercial kitchen is also in the plans.

“Lastly, we will be working to furnish the building's common and meeting/event spaces with quality furnishings and technology that create a welcoming and comfortable space for our entire community,” he added.

Phase 3 is slated for a parking lot adjacent to 15 Casco St.

“We are working with a local developer to generate an updated vision for what will now be a mostly, if not all, affordable housing complex that will be owned by the Equality Community Center to support housing needs within the communities we serve,” he said.

About $1 million from the capital campaign is budgeted for the initial planning of Phase 3. 

“Our plan is to work with our developer and engage Maine State Housing Authority in helping to fund the project,”  he said.

A firm timeline for Phase 3 development has not yet been worked out.

Speaking to the importance of the projects, O’Connor said the center’s mission — to provide a collaborative workplace for Maine LGBTQ+ and allied social-justice seeking organizations — comes at a time when marginalized communities are facing unprecedented political attacks, limited access to resources, and increased instances of hate and bias incidents.

Finding strength in solidarity “is a powerful approach to creating change,” he said. “Together with our tenant and partner organizations, we strive to provide a safer and more inclusive gathering space that offers educational and social programming for all in our community.”

Additionally, affordable housing in Portland is critical, especially for marginalized communities that need access to resources, public transportation, and a safe and supportive living environment, he said.

“With the community center next door, we are excited for the potential that exists for creating a very special shared community experience for all involved,” he said.

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