Music center right at home in city-owned cultural firehouse
by: COURTESY OF Ethos Music Center, 
Students at Vernon School create Hip-Hop songs at the Ethos Music Center, a nonprofit that recently won the contract to manage the city’s Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center.

Ethos Music Center is a success story - a nonprofit venture that operates with a budget surplus and recently winning the contract to manage the Portland Parks and Recreation-owned Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center.

It's because of dedication, the ability to have full-time employees and maintain its $1 million budget through fundraising, says Charles Lewis, Ethos executive director.

'We do all right,' says Lewis, who's giddy these days after Ethos won the IFCC contract. 'We're not swimming in money, but last year we had a big surplus because of grants - like $266,000. That's an amazing state for nonprofits, because most are having deficits and going under.

'We're really frugal, and the staff is not paid what it should be. But we're dedicated to the mission of quality of arts and kids.'

Indeed, what Ethos had above Stumptown Stages, NW Documentary and Community Music Center Inc. - the three other IFCC bidders - was financial stability and size and reach to make something of the building, an old firehouse at 5340 N. Interstate Ave., adjacent to Patton Square Park.

'I think it was that we fit the city's criteria to the 'T,' ' Lewis says. 'The city wanted a multicultural arts organization focused on north and northeast Portland that was solid financially. That was Ethos exactly. But, it was stiff competition.'

Ethos, started in 1998, has been focused on music education for students, but it plans to branch out, Lewis says. In fact, Ethos wants to involve the likes of Stumptown, NW Documentary and CMC Inc.

'We're going to be working with different community partners that will help bring in other disciplines,' he says. Ethos plans community panels to help select the groups in theater, visual arts and dance and others. It's expected that two resident theater groups, as well as dance and visual arts groups, will be involved with IFCC.

IFCC was operated by a nonprofit that went under because of its lack of leadership and, therefore, lack of money, especially after the city stopped subsidization. Ethos almost merged with the nonprofit five years ago, Lewis says.

Lewis says Ethos has been stable, thanks to its cadre of contributors - a board of directors, nine full-time staffers, four half-time employees, eight full-time Americorps members and nearly 50 part-time instructors.

'Organizations go through life cycles,' he says. 'Ethos is growing, with a growing number of students (about 2,000 total throughout Oregon) and record fund raising. We're vibrant and growing.

'With any nonprofit, it's easy to get stuck in the same way of doing business. We're used to being scrappy and getting the most out of every penny we have. It's a different time out there and you have to adapt and grow. Ethos is really good at that.'

Lewis says Ethos gave $45,000 in scholarships last year.

IFCC, opened in 1982, has 99 fixed seats, with space to add some more. Lewis says the draw to the building is the history and focus on diversity and empowering artists.

Ethos' headquarters will remain at its building at North Killingsworth Avenue and Williams Street. It's where the company merged two buildings - 2 and 10 N. Killingsworth. Ethos also purchased a church a block east of headquarters, and Lewis says the congregation will probably remain there, and space could be used for storage.

It's a two-year contract between Ethos and the city. Ethos will be responsible for utilities and day-to-day maintenance among other things, and the city will maintain the exterior and grounds.

'The IFCC is an expansion for us,' Lewis says.

'This is an excellent fit for the IFCC and for the residents of north and northeast Portland,' says Nick Fish, Portland Parks and Recreation commissioner. 'Ethos has a long history of fostering multi-ethnic, multi-cultural programs, education and performances, which is exactly what we hoped to be able to continue at IFCC.'

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