Questions mount on Bessie Smith Center's finances

Questions mount on Bessie Smith Center's finances

September 4th, 2014 by Joy Lukachick Smith in Local Regional News

A church exhibit is displayed in the African-American Museum at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center. Center board members are reviewing an audit commissioned after a major theft of money in June and some community members worry that the center's finances are shaky.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

The theft of tens of thousands of dollars from the annual Bessie Smith Strut this year has focused new attention on financial concerns and management at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center.

Financial reports show that the center on M.L. King Boulevard has been losing money for the last three years since Hamilton County pulled its funding in 2011, state funding slumped and memberships shrank.

And state and city finance reports show that center-hosted special events - including the Bessie Smith Strut and Heritage Festival - don't always break even and in some years report significant losses.

The center's board has yet to release an independent audit ordered after the June theft, and the board's treasurer said Wednesday he had just resigned.

On Wednesday, City Councilman Yusuf Hakeem said he asked to join the board to help save the center.

"The Bessie Smith Cultural Center is too valuable an asset to this community to allow it to languish in the position it is right now," Hakeem said.

Hakeem and other public officials are calling on the Bessie Smith board to release the audit, saying it will help determine whether the center's underpinnings are solid or whether substantial changes are needed.

"If they're receiving public money [the audit] should be open to everyone, absolutely," said County Commissioner Warren Mackey, who gives to the center from his discretionary fund. "The audit is going to tell us where we stand, if our efforts and our hope are well placed."

Board Chairman Jeffrey Wilson said the board is trying to digest the audit findings and will decide at next week's board meeting whether to make the audit public.

"We're trying to do what's in the best interest of the Bessie. We're certainly not trying to hide anything," Wilson said.

Asked about treasurer Michael Jones' resignation, Wilson said he understood Jones had cited a heavy workload.

In July, the board hired auditing firm, Henderson Hutcherson & McCullough, to investigate discrepancies related to how much money was stolen after the strut.

Former Bessie Smith employee Torrey Hines admitted to police that he stole about $42,400 on June 10 from a desk drawer at the center, but Bessie Smith officials reported more than double that amount - $88,932 - was missing.

Neither the board or the center's director, Rose Martin, will talk about audit findings. And the center's attorney, Walter Williams, said he advised Martin that she didn't have to release the document.

The Bessie Smith Cultural Center - comprising an African-American museum and an event hall - operates on a budget that hovers around $500,000 a year. The building is leased from the city and county and the city pays $60,000 in taxpayer funds for operations. The city also pays for capital expenses, such as repairs.

Commissioners Mackey and Greg Beck each gave $5,000 from their discretionary funds, and the center has received support from multiple foundations including Benwood, Lyndhurst and ArtsBuild.

Financial reports, though, show the center's losses in the last three years range from $16,000 to nearly $40,000 and the center is projecting a more than $24,000 loss this year.

Martin has headed the center since 2007, since longtime director Vilma Fields retired. The board chose Martin, the former director of the local 100 Black Men chapter, from a pool of 25 applicants nationwide.

At the time, Martin said her goals were to improve the quality of exhibits and in the next five years triple the center's budget and become accredited by the American Association of Museums.

While special events funding did increase for a time, along with membership, public funds have waned and the center has recorded increased operating costs, according to financial statements.

Wilson said the center has done its best to operate on a "shoestring budget" during tough economic times.

"It's hard for any nonprofit to make money right now," he said. "We've reduced programs and put a freeze on new hiring and paid for the costs in reserves."

Yet one local museum expert said the theft raises questions about the overall state of the center and its future.

"The organization is in trouble financially, it may even go out of business," said Clark Eldridge White, a local blues educator, artist and museum consultant. "Who will be willing to take an obvious financial risk?"

White, who is also on Mayor Andy Berke's entertainment and attractions task force, raised multiple questions in a recent Times Free Press opinion column calling on the center to say whether it is meeting its mission to educate and produce research on the black experience in Chattanooga.

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at or 423-757-6659.