After more than 70 years as an independent nonprofit, the Boys and Girls Club of the Harbor Area is considering a merger with its larger counterpart in Santa Ana — a move that club leaders hope will create efficiencies and better programming for thousands of children, according to sources involved in the discussions.
A special committee, comprised of leaders from both sides, has been studying the possibility for the past several months. The Daily Pilot learned about the merger proposal last week.
Votes from the clubs' respective boards to combine their resources could come early next year, though Boys and Girls Club executives told the Daily Pilot that the deliberations are very preliminary. So far, a structural picture and even a name — a merged Boys and Girls Club would incorporate disparate Orange County neighborhoods, from working-class Santa Ana to white-collar Newport Beach — are far from clear.
"We're trying to put two organizations together so that we can serve our kids better and they can serve their kids better," said Gary McArdell, a merger committee member and the Harbor Area's past board president. "That's all we're here for. We're not here for profit or our own glory.
"It's not a takeover. It truly is a merger of two organizations that are truly in it for the right reasons."
Robert Santana, CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of Santa Ana, said mergers of clubs are not unprecedented and have occurred locally, in San Diego and Los Angeles counties.
"We're talking about strengthening ourselves, pooling our talent, pooling our resources, creating efficiencies of scale ... These aren't far-fetched ideas," said Santana, who also serves as one of 12 nationwide advisors to the national Boys and Girls Club organization.
The consideration to combine the two nonprofits comes after a tumultuous year for the Harbor Area, which, according to several sources, underwent an independent investigation into the actions of its last chief executive, Tammy Walz.
Walz joined the Harbor Area in fall 2013 after serving previous leadership positions at Boys and Girls Clubs in Arizona and Oceanside. She left the organization earlier this fall.
McArdell said he is precluded from discussing the matter, other than to say that the investigation had "no findings."
"It became clear that we needed to part ways, so we did," he said. "And we parted ways on good terms."
The Boys and Girls Club of Santa Ana, founded in 1954, has 70 employees and an estimated 300 volunteers. It serves about 5,000 children each year.
The nonprofit, which has its own separate foundation, runs on a $3-million annual budget. It maintains a presence in 45 Santa Ana Unified School District campuses, though it is centered around its recently renovated flagship facility, the Joe MacPherson Center for Opportunity, in Santa Ana's Pico-Lowell neighborhood.
Since its reopening last year, the center, which also has a dedicated teen area, has been toured by more than 40 Boys and Girls Club CEOs as a model facility, Santana said.
"We create magic here," Santana said. "When kids grow up, this means something. The memories we're building are going to follow them for the rest of their life."
The Harbor Area club, which has four branches — two in Costa Mesa, one in Newport Beach and another in Irvine — was founded in 1941, making it the oldest Boys and Girls Club in Orange County.
It operates on a roughly $1.3-million annual operating budget, with around 35 paid employees and an unspecified amount of volunteers who serve about 3,500 children each year.
In November, during a Costa Mesa City Council meeting, a resident erroneously stated that the Harbor Area's Lou Yantorn branch at 2131 Tustin Ave. — located on city-owned property next to Jordan Park in Costa Mesa's Eastside — was closing.
This led to some community speculation, and city officials wondered what was happening with the branch, whose leaders had been working with City Hall to renew the club's 50-year lease that expires in November 2016.
City spokesman Tony Dodero said Tuesday that the city did not know about the possible merger and that the renegotiation process is ongoing. The lease is scheduled to go before the City Council in January.
McArdell said a merger proposal is not a first for the Harbor Area. It had considered merging with another club — they never picked one — but leaders ultimately decided against it.
In recent years, the club has struggled to find the right leader who's dynamic, understands the business and fundraising sides, and all operational matters, McArdell said.
"It's a very difficult position to fill. You need to fill those three," he added. "It's a secret sauce that we haven't been able to find."
McArdell said he hopes the Harbor Area community will be open-minded about the merger possibility "and give us a chance to go through the process."