At The Head Of It All

After nearly a decade at the helm of one of the largest foundations in Jamestown, John Merino will be leaving the Gebbie Foundation this week.

Merino, who was hired in 2003 as CEO, has overseen more than 120 projects that the foundation has taken part in, totalling more than $85 million in reinvestment in downtown Jamestown.

“I’ve been here for almost 10 years,” Merino said. “I think that’s about the most that any organization ought to look for out of its primary leadership position, but it’s also the most, I think, that an individual ought to look for out of an organization. That’s especially true for nonprofits with volunteer boards. Everybody gets settled in their ways and sometimes you need to shake things up a little bit in order to get fresh ideas and a new perspective.”

When Merino was originally hired at the Gebbie Foundation, the offices were located on the fourth floor of the Hotel Jamestown. From there, it moved to the Furniture Mart building where it was located for roughly seven years, and now it resides in the Wellman Building. His education and background, which focused primarily on urban and economic development, was one of the primary reasons Merino was brought in as a candidate for the position.

“Urban and economic development is what I’ve done for almost 35 years,” Merino said. “When Gebbie made the decision to move away from more typical types of philanthropy and become proactive in committing so much money to the community and downtown, the board decided that we were now in a different business. We started the job by spending more than $20 million and we needed to finish redoing downtown. Really, that’s why I was brought in – that was my strong suit, my expertise. I think we’ve accomplished quite a bit.”

During Merino’s time as the head of the foundation, several key projects were completed in downtown Jamestown. The Wellman Building was the most recent large project. It took more than $7 million in investment, but it created 44 residential units, commercial space and office space in a building that had been empty for almost 20 years before Merino came to the city.

“Luckily we were able to talk a good group of folks into coming into the community and taking a look at it,” Merino said. “Part of what I did was work with them on putting together a development plan.”

The Jamestown Gateway Train Station is another building that had sat empty for years. According to Merino, if it weren’t for Lee Harkness and the Downtown Jamestown Development Corporation, the building may have been demolished years ago. After being awarded the Federal Transportation Grant and qualifying for tax credits, the Gebbie Foundation began investing in that to get them enough dollars to finish the project.

The Connection, located in the Jamestown Furniture Exposition building, was one of the first projects that Merino began working on when he was brought in to the organization.

“We’d been working with that firm for almost two years trying to lure them into Jamestown, and it took me almost another year and a half to convince the ownership that they should move into the Furniture Expo,” Merino said. “Subsequently, we’ve got almost 500 full-time jobs downtown that we didn’t have before.”

Merino has also been involved with the numerous alley restorations, everything that the Jamestown Renaissance Corporation does and all of the facade restorations in the downtown core.

“The first day that I came for the interview, I got here early and walked around downtown Jamestown,” Merino said. “I saw the three buildings on North Main, the old Victorian buildings that have had the facades redone, and they were a disaster. In the process of the first interview, they asked me what I wanted to accomplish when I was here. I told them that if we could get to restoring those three buildings, then that would mean that we’d touched base on everything else that we needed to. I feel like we’ve succeeded. When we created the facade program, those were the first three buildings that we tackled and they’ve looked great ever since. Those things are important.”

Opening up communications with the city and building communication between the city and the Gebbie Foundation has also been really critical in the success of the projects around downtown, according to Merino. In spite of all of the dollars that Gebbie has put into the community, it’s still necessary to work on projects in partnerships.

“I love the work and I love the ability of this organization to accomplish the goals that it sets for itself,” Merino said. “When I think back about what the downtown looked like 10 years ago, we’ve seen so many high-impact, high-visibility projects happen that have been great for the city. It’s all because of our partnerships with the city government, organizations like the Jamestown Renaissance Corporation, private developers and the community.”

“Sometimes it takes a lot of money to effect change, and thankfully this community is blessed by a lot of organizations willing to help with that,” Merino continued.

With his final days at the helm Gebbie Foundation coming to a close, Merino said that in the future he plans on doing consulting work for nonprofits around the country, as well as continuing to play music.

“I look forward to doing that,” Merino said. “It’s probably a little less stressful, a little more rewarding in terms of time that I’ll have for myself.”

For more information on the Gebbie Foundation, visit www.gebbie.org or call 487-1062.