By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
What started out as an idealistic dream of employing inner-city youths to build a sanctuary for teen mothers and their children in Five Points has turned into an ugly legal battle pitting a grassroots activist against a multinational corporation.
Schuller House was to be the centerpiece of Schuller International's "community responsibility" corporate-giving campaign. (Schuller is the world's largest fiberglass manufacturer, and a wholly owned subsidiary of former asbestos giant Manville Corporation.) But after sinking $220,000 of corporate and employee donations into the renovation project, Schuller is now refusing to contribute further and is suing in Denver District Court to stop the project's owner and organizer--Aspen-based community activist John Reid--from selling the unfinished, financially strapped complex.
Schuller alleges Reid was planning to profit from their charitable donations. Reid fires back that Schuller was trying to squeeze him and his not-for-profit company, the Urban Living Center (ULC), out of the picture so that the giant company could have the project all to itself. Caught in the middle are the 37 neighborhood teens in the Job Corps program who were helping to build the house; they've now been laid off. Also ensnared are the hundreds of Schuller employees who donated time and money to the project, and six single teen mothers who were slated to move into the complex last February.
"It's a crock," says an angry Reid when reached by phone at the other not-for-profit he runs in Aspen. "John Reid didn't screw up. Schuller did. I went into a community in Denver with my own savings and purchased a hundred-year-old row house. As a result of some of my work here [at the Aspen Grassroots Experience], I knew some teens were getting pregnant and then had no safe place to live and continue getting education or job training. I purchased that row house with the vision that someday we could provide that." Reid's vision included six two-bedroom apartments, each complete with its own kitchen and full bath, and one additional one-bedroom unit equipped to accommodate a disabled person.
Reid put $10,000 down and financed the rest of the $60,000 complex at Humboldt and East 25th Avenue using his own name on the loan. A Schuller employee, Joni Baird, heard about the project and got the company on board. "We were looking for something to rally around as a giving project," says Schuller spokeswoman Sharon Sweet. "And this project had so much appeal. First there was the involvement of neighborhood youth in the construction. The kids would work in conjunction with professional help and learn building skills. And then there was the actual building--it really tied in with our product--and then there was the final result, the home for teen mothers."
The project had so much appeal, in fact, that Schuller wanted the house named after the company. Reid agreed to call the complex "Schuller House at the Urban Living Center." That was in the early summer of 1994. Immediately, Schuller began arranging with the United Way to collect money for Schuller House, even though neither Schuller House nor the Urban Living Center were United Way agencies. Schuller employees started volunteering their time on weekends to help with cleanup and construction. Reid obtained a $50,000 grant from the Governor's Youth Alternative Energy Program to help fund the youth salaries. In a June press release Schuller proudly announced the project and its support of it.
It was all downhill from there.
Schuller now says it was never the company's project to begin with. "We were just one contributor," insists Sweet. "It was [Reid's] project. We never said we were going to pay for it, or that we'd make it happen regardless of cost."
To which Reid replies, "Bullshit. This was their project through and through. So long as the media attention was rolling in, guess who was in front of the cameras? Guess who got a banner made that said `Schuller House?'"
A July 1994 letter from Schuller's Rick Christjansen, the company's 1994 United Way campaign coordinator, indicated that Schuller considered itself "partnered" with Reid's Urban Living Center, promising corporate matching dollars, building materials and volunteers in exchange for naming the house after the company. Two Schuller middle managers--Pam Best and Steve Perry--and Rick Christjansen's wife, Arlene, were brought on as voting members on the ULC board of directors; Joni Baird served as a "group support guest" member.
But the problems started early. Schuller felt the $50,000 grant should have been enough for the youths' salaries. But Reid says that with kids working full-time through the summer at $6.50 an hour, and then fifteen to twenty hours a week after school started, the $50,000 ran out fast. "The grant only lasted six months," Reid says. "We had a total of 37 kids at different times. Good kids. Hardworking kids. Our main priority should've been to keep these kids on board no matter what. Schuller didn't agree."
In fact, Reid says, he had a number of arguments with Baird about it. "She wanted me to lay them off," Reid says. Instead, Reid started paying them out of his own pocket.
Minutes from ULC/Schuller House board meetings early in the project indicate that Schuller employees, including Baird, Perry, Rick Christjansen, sometimes Arlene Christjansen, and even corporate spokeswoman Sharon Sweet participated in board meetings at which nearly every aspect of the project was discussed. At those meetings, it was decided to hire a general contractor to oversee the construction, commission an architect to review the renovation, and schedule volunteers.