In January 2004, the big announcement came: McDonald's heiress Joan Kroc had left at least $1.5 billion to The Salvation Army to build community centers across the nation.
In 2000, Kroc had funded and endowed a huge, state-of-the art community center in a poor section of east San Diego. After it was built, she often dropped by unannounced to see that The Salvation Army was doing things right. What she saw inspired her to entrust much of her fortune to The Salvation Army.
As the three-year mark from the news of Joan's gift approaches, the Kroc funds have been split among the Army's four U.S. territories, which have been narrowing down the prospects for Kroc center sites.
Every center will be different, tailored to its community. But all will be true to Kroc's vision, which was to provide uncompromising quality. She said each center should be a "beacon on a hill" for all, regardless of income or background.
"Joan Kroc did her research and felt this was the approach needed for kids with unfulfilled dreams," says Major Susan Bukiewicz, who, with her husband, Major Ralph Bukiewicz, is coordinating Kroc plans in the Army's Central Territory. "She wanted future Olympians, Academy Award winners, world-class sports figures to get their start and training at a Kroc center.... I believe God gave her a vision, and that He intended that [that] vision become ours."
Building from 'corps' out
Which brings up the second feature all Kroc centers will have in common: a Christ-focused mission. The word corps, the Army's term for a church, will be incorporated in the names of the centers, and that's intentional.
"As we keep the mission foremost, as we will in the South, we will not migrate from our root values," says Jack C. Getz, the point person for Kroc development in the Southern Territory. "We see these centers as opportunities for mission accomplishment, both the overt spiritual witness and the meeting of many needs we are not currently able to [meet]."
Major Hugh Steele, spearheading the Kroc effort in the Eastern Territory, says that Salvation Army mission will be at the heart of every Kroc center there.
"We build from the corps out," he says. Candidate communities had "to demonstrate in their planning ... that we wouldn't lose sight of who we are as The Salvation Army. Our mission statement, our mission purpose, our mission intent would continue to be the center of all our thinking and planning."
Likewise, in the Western Territory, the corps will be at the heart of every Kroc center.
"From the beginning, the territory has emphasized that the worship center had to have a central prominence," says Lt. Colonel Don McDougald, who is heading up Kroc planning. "Our desire is to keep the worship center clearly visible and make it an inviting place."
He adds that each corps council (lay leader board) has been urged to create each center as "a beacon to the community" and "that each person coming through our doors realize that it is a Christian center...."
Embracing Christian focus
How has such an explicit emphasis on Christian mission been received by community leaders—and especially, those who might donate funds to support a Kroc center?
"The majority of community leaders and residents support the center due to its spiritual component," says Susan Bukiewicz.
"They [community leaders] have been very open to it," says Steele. "They ... see us not only as the red kettle at Christmas time or the social service agency helping the needy, but ... as The Salvation Army. The Salvation Army is a church. The Salvation Army is a community-based organization meeting holistic needs of families and individuals."
Getz says that communities "have no choice" but to accept the spiritual emphasis of the Kroc centers because "on this point there is no compromise for us. We have it our way, or there is no partnership." He adds, however, "Everyone has embraced [the spiritual emphasis]."
How are they chosen?
About 35 Kroc centers, from Honolulu to Boston, from Duluth, Minn., to Biloxi, Miss., are on the drawing board. Some are at the business plan stage; others are still in feasibility studies. They range in cost from about $5 million to $61 million. Almost all will be brand-new construction.
Each territory began the process with an open application phase. Key factors in the selection process included demonstrating community need for a Kroc center and tangible evidence of ongoing financial support.
"Territorial administration has decreed that no shovel will overturn dirt until at least 50 percent of the Kroc operating endowment has been matched on the community level," says Bukiewicz.
She gives an example based on the Central Territory's smallest project, at $22 million. "Half of that amount ... will be used for building and outfitting the new center," she says. "The other half is the endowment to sustain operations. The community match must equal half of that endowment, or $5.5 million."
In most places, enthusiasm for a Kroc center hasn't been a problem.
"Local communities are almost too rabid with desire to get a center," says Getz. "They often want to skip the tedious planning required and get going with a building project."
"Communities are bending over backward to make this happen," says Steele. "Naturally so. It's going to bring economic development. It's going to bring revitalization to neighborhoods. It's going to bring new life to neighborhoods that have gone without."
He adds that each of the eight communities selected from 29 applications in the East has a year and a half to two years of fund-raising efforts ahead. Some communities are well on their way; Dayton, Ohio, has raised three-fourths of its required amount, and Ashland, Ohio, raised $400,000 in a two-day telethon.
The Central Territory started with 39 "letters of intent" from corps to build a Kroc center. An elaborate scoring system—and prayer—led to 10 locations being "pre-qualified." Each of those, says Bukiewicz, had a " 'wow factor'—that something extra that pushed their scores and qualitative evaluation over the top." The "finalists"—including Grand Rapids, Mich., which was recently elevated to "pre-approved" stage—are now putting "flesh and blood on the skeleton of their dreams," Bukiewicz says.
That "flesh and blood" includes needs assessments, feasibility studies, and professional reports on each community's needs and ability to sustain the center financially. But, Bukiewicz says, "The most important, non-negotiable aspect that needed to be demonstrated ... was the 'critical path' taking people from the front door to the Cross. Could the [Kroc center] be a Christ-centered mission center—with no strings attached—for preaching the Gospel? This is the crucial question that must be answered in the affirmative for each location."
The other "non-negotiable" for every Kroc center in the nation is that the facility be first-class in every respect. Bukiewicz says that the centers must offer "the best of everything." The San Diego Kroc center, for example, has Olympic pools, an NHL-regulation ice rink, and a 600-seat theater with Broadway quality lighting and sound.
"The Salvation Army isn't used to operating like that," says Bukiewicz. "We've always been more subtle in our presence, pinching pennies and gladly accepting handouts. We're not used to having the best."
That quality of facility and service will, all by itself, raise the visibility of The Salvation Army and possibly change its image in the eyes of the public, who know the Army mainly as a disaster-service and social services organization that operates thrift stores and red-kettle stands.
And, Salvation Army leaders promise, the corps will be at the core of every Salvation Army Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center.