Bill Watanabe, interim executive director of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, addresses a packed Garden Room during a public meeting held on Nov. 13. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)



The Garden Room was packed on Nov. 13 as the leaders of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center laid out the challenges facing the 32-year-old organization.

More than three months since the abrupt departure of former CEO Greg Willis, interest was high for the annual public meeting, normally attended by just a handful of community members.

The meeting was a chance to review the past, but also to seek support and emphasize the tough financial issues facing the center, one of the core nonprofit institutions in Little Tokyo. JACCC hosted some noted cultural events in 2012 including L.A. Bloom, the Nisei Week Coronation and this weekend’s Ohana concert featuring Daniel Ho.

Sandy Sakamoto, chair of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, speaks during a public meeting held on Nov. 13. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

Sandy Sakamoto, JACCC board chair, expressed the hope that the open meeting would ultimately strengthen the organization during a time of crisis.

“Given some of the events that have occurred and outpouring of concern, questions and support, we thought we’d take this opportunity to welcome whoever wanted to attend and open this up as a community forum and begin a dialogue with the community, with the hopes of really trying to strengthen our community in totality and to move forward,” said Sakamoto.

Joining Sakamoto on the panel were Bill Watanabe, interim executive director; Debbie Ching, interim chief operating officer; and board members Jeff Folick, Jerry Fukui, Terry Handa, Tom Iino, Helen Ota, Gary Kawaguchi and Frank Lee. Alan Nishio served as moderator during the two-hour discussion.

Sakamoto apologized to staff during her opening remarks. Without mentioning specific staff complaints, she acknowledged that “mistakes were made.” An extradition order placed on Willis by the French government was first revealed following complaints by staff that were received by members of Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress and reported in The Rafu Shimpo.

“I do want to say to any of the staff in particular, past or present, who felt that the board did not support them, that I’m very sorry. This is an organization that if we are to succeed, we must be able to have an efficiently and effectively run organization. And in order to do that there must be healthy work environment in which to work. That’s important,” said Sakamoto.

Walter Morita, former JACCC director of operations, speaking on behalf of former JACCC staffers Kathy Tokudomi and Barbara Shoji, said they accepted Sakamoto’s apology.

While he described his last few months at the JACCC, during Willis’ tenure, as the worst working experience of his career, he emphasized his support for the organization. Morita, who now works at the Little Tokyo Service Center, has spoken with Watanabe and Ching, and met with the committee that will select the new executive director.

Walter Morita

“We were asked by several people to write to The Rafu to explain our experiences. We thought that was not a very constructive forum. I saw some of the bashing going on, especially in Sandy’s name, and I felt badly about that,” said Morita. “We looked for constructive ways on how we can share our concerns to do something positive for the organization.”

Other members of the community pressed for more openness and answers from the board. Rodney Kageyama asked about the process that took place when Willis was hired.

“I know it was a head-hunter organization. Was there any other process? The reason I bring this up is because everyone wants to know about it. Not only me or just a few people but everybody. It’s still on their minds,” said Kageyama. “Because in order for us to go forward with this wonderful plan that you people have, we have to understand what has happened in the past and how many mistakes we’ve made back there. And I think it’s important that we admit that we’ve made these mistakes. We depend upon the board and we’re going to help you as much as possible, but we cannot help if the board is secretive or they say they don’t want to discuss this particular matter. That immediately brings up suspicion.”

Kathy Masaoka, a member of NCRR, said an ombudsman to hear staff complaints was necessary.

Kathy Masaoka

“What happened with the hiring of Greg Willis and his mistreatment of staff and the revelations about his criminal behavior was a real wake-up call not only for the center but also the community,” said Masaoka.

Mo Nishida evoked the Japanese word shinyo (trust) and urged the board to listen to the community.

“Can we trust you folks to move us forward in an open and frank kind of way? There’s a whole lot of us that are nobodies, don’t have a lot of money don’t have whatever it takes to be sitting up on that board, but we care. So please clue us in on what’s going on,” Nishida emphasized.


Search for Executive Director

Jeff Folick, head of the executive director search committee, outlined the steps the committee has taken that are markedly different from the prior search. Watanabe is only serving as an interim executive director with the goal to fill his position by the end of this year. The JACCC is not using an outside executive search firm, instead conducting the search internally, with a committee consisting of board members Folick, Handa, Ken Kasamatsu, Lee, Ota, George Tanaka and Watanabe, who has been asked to join the board; two non-board members, Chris Aihara and Doug Erber; and a staff representative, Jessie Kikuchi.

Fourteen resumes were received by the Nov. 9 deadline; interviews with candidates will take place Dec. 5 and 6. The committee will narrow the applicants down to the top two or three candidates, with a final selection by the board set for Dec. 20.

“I think we have a process that has elicited reasonably good applicants, hopefully among them a really strong applicant, and our job is to convince that applicant to work with us to help build the future of JACCC,” said Folick.

Sakamoto said the board was conducting the search in a more transparent manner. She explained that in hiring Willis, they were looking for someone who could help turn around the JACCC’s finances.

Debbie Ching explains a pie chart illustrating the breakdown of revenue sources for the JACCC in 2011. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

“The board has understood well over a year or two ago that we really need to make a tremendous change in the organization,” Sakamoto stated. “We knew that the business model, the operating model needed to change and be refreshed. As a result, we were looking for business skills. We also knew we were in a turnaround mode, quite frankly.”


Financial Challenges

The scope of the fiscal troubles facing the next executive director were starkly laid out during a presentation by the interim COO. Ching, former Chinatown Service Center executive director, stated that the cultural arts organization has amassed debt of approximately $2 million.

Since 2007, Ching reported, the JACCC has trended downward in its revenues. In 2010 the JACCC broke even, but since then, the center has recorded losses.

“Thirty-seven percent of JACCC’s revenues is from gifts in 2011 and three years prior, 2008-2010, included a significant gift of $500,000 each year of those four years by a major private donor,” Ching said. “That contribution ended as of 2011. This year, 2012, that $500,000 is no longer in the mix.”

The other major sources of revenue are rental and leasing of the facilities, which accounts for 36 percent of income, and fundraising events that bring in 11 percent.

One of the problems she noted has been the Japan America Theatre, a crown jewel of Little Tokyo but prohibitively expensive to operate and maintain.

“What I understand historically the theater has never made money, it has always been a money loss. To support the theater it takes quite a bit of community support in order for the facilities to continue on. Because the facilities themselves don’t bring in enough money,” said Ching.

“This is not a new picture but it’s a picture that is important for the community to know where the situation is and why it is so important for JACCC now to get community support in order to continue,” she added.

Later, Watanabe explained that the center has been running deficits in the tens of thousands of dollars every month.

“Which means we have to keep borrowing money to keep the doors open. At some point you’re not going to be able to keep borrowing, at some point you’re going to be maxed out. Then the really tough decisions are going to be how do we keep the JACCC going?” Watanabe said.

Among the options on the table are to sell the building, located in a prime downtown location. The interim executive director revealed that a buyer has come forward and made an offer.

“They need an answer in two weeks, so what do we do? This offer, we have to look at it, because if we sell this building, maybe it means we can keep going for the next forty years. Maybe it means we have to reconfigure what the JACCC is all about,” said Watanabe.

The interim executive director said that the board hasn’t had the chance to review the offer, but that any revenue source that would help JACCC eliminate its debt must be seriously considered. Other financial goals are to fully lease out the building, which would bring in an extra $30,000 per month. Some of the JACCC’s functions have been taken by the Japanese American National Museum and also by the Budokan gymnasium, once it is completed, he added. Watanabe, former LTSC executive director, is helping with the Budokan capital campaign.

“JACCC will have a niche, not as broad as before. It still can be the premier Japanese arts and culture center in Los Angeles but we can’t keep going the way we’ve been going, some things have to change,” said Watanabe. “I hope you understand it wasn’t an easy decision. If it happens those are the kind of tough decisions that are here right now.”


The Future

At the conclusion of the meeting, the board said it would continue to reach out and seek input from the community, including convening a meeting to talk about programming, another vital part of JACCC’s mission.

Tom Iino, who has served on the board since 1990, said community involvement will be key to the organization’s future. Like others at the meeting, he expressed the concern that sustainability will be challenging in the next ten years due to the passing of the Nisei generation and lower levels of support from the Sansei and Yonsei generations.

“I’m a huge believer that we need to expand way beyond our own community if we are to maintain sustainability,” said Iino. “I for one and the entire board is really appreciative that we’re holding this meeting. Someone once said that in every tragedy there’s a silver lining. This is a new beginning and we’re all here to get it right.”

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