By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
When thousands of Episcopalians gathered in Austin for General Convention, they heard almost nothing about a $10 million campaign to build a new home for the Archives of the Episcopal Church.
The proposed mixed-use building, to be located three blocks away from the Austin Convention Center, is scheduled to open in 2021. But the campaign has failed to gain significant traction since its quiet phase launched in January 2017. Only about $500,000 in firm pledges have come in, and no major donors have signed on with six- or seven-figure commitments, says Mark Duffy, director of the archives.
Potential big donors first want to see that others have already stepped up, he said.
“Every time we talk to people, they say: Well, how many do you have? Well, you would be the first,” Duffy said. “That’s a hard thing for people to do when they’re giving $1 million or $2 million.”
With no major support to announce, the archives, based in Austin since 1958, opted for a relatively low profile during the national meeting. The proposed site remains a nondescript, church-owned parking lot that brings in revenue for national operations.
Now, however, the project needs a breakthrough if it is to proceed as planned. Pressure is mounting for the effort to reach milestones before year’s end or return to the drawing board.
Local developer Bobby Dillard of Cielo Property Group is yet to announce any anchor retailer tenants since his firm secured a contract to partner with the church in April 2017. He’s working on carving out an approximately 70,000-square-foot home for the archives within a 600,000-square-foot, $160 million project that would include a mix of residential condominiums and commercial tenants.
Between height restrictions in the zoning code and the neighborhood’s popularity with Austin’s large homeless population, however, the site is proving to be a challenge.
Dillard “knows that he’s got until the end of the year to really pull this all together,” Duffy said. “I’m hoping that by the end of the year we have a couple of major gifts. … That will be enough to start the ball rolling for us to offer a much quicker pace in the process of raising the money.”
Cielo spokeswoman Christine Haas relayed an update for Dillard, who declined to be interviewed.
“Cielo is still in the planning stages of the project and hopes to be closing by the end of the year,” Haas said via text message. She said an update might be available as soon as October.
Archive holdings are currently spread across five locations: one in New York and four in Texas, including a main facility at Seminary of the Southwest. The archive headquarters now occupies 8,500 square feet on the third floor of the seminary’s library.
Contents include historical records from General Convention, multiple presiding bishops, various organizations, and personal papers. The temporary home offers inadequate protection against fire and theft, Duffy said.
The seminary has outgrown its library, said Eric Scott, director of communications and marketing, and a third-floor expansion cannot proceed until the space is vacant. A master plan calls for investments in the library, classrooms, and campus housing. Although the seminary has not given the archives a deadline for moving, the expectation is for the space to open within a few years.
“We know they’re planning to move,” Scott said. “We want to improve a lot of our buildings. The archives’ leaving gives us an opportunity to look at that anew without having to worry about relationships, the political reality of things, and not wanting to ever rock that boat. We’re happy for that opportunity.”
The proposed site is located on the block of Neches, Trinity, and East Seventh and Eighth streets. It is bordered by a garage owned by St. David’s Episcopal Church, a Salvation Army center, and the Austin Health Department. The Episcopal Church bought the parcel before the economic downturn that began in 2008. The Great Recession delayed fundraising until last year.
Fundraising has shown some encouraging signs. Episcopal Church Women resolved last summer to work with other organizations in raising money for a women’s reading room at the archives, which Duffy hopes will lead to a gift of about $1 million.
But competition for Episcopal donors is said to be stiff this year. Many institutions are engaged in campaigns, Duffy said, and national programs tend to rank low among donors’ priorities.
“We are the last ones that are going to get those large gifts when people are already supporting their parish, diocese, seminary, or any number of other well-established and independent Episcopal organizations,” Duffy said. “So that has been an uphill battle.”