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The Free Meal Center The Free Meal Center The promise of free meals on Route 9 a memory

BURLEIGH – It looks as though The Free Meal Center will never feed anyone.

The board has stopped meeting.

The building that was once expected to house the center on Route 9 in the Burleigh section of Middle Township is gutted.

Its windows are shut. The door is locked. The center’s phone number is disconnected, and the 4,200-square-foot building is for sale.

After taking more than $100,000 in donations over three years, accepting countless hours of volunteer labor and donated supplies, the center appears to have closed its doors, and at least one benefactor has received a refund of more than $20,000.

There’s little to remind people of the dream to serve free meals: a sign in front of the forlorn building; a website that hasn’t been updated in a year; a Facebook page that mirrors the website; a few pleas for donations scattered around the Internet.

At least three members of the board of directors seem to be putting distance between themselves and The Free Meal Center’s director of the board, Douglas Jewell.

Burgess “Butch” Hamer was the only board member who agreed to speak with the Gazette. He said in April that it had been “a long time since the board had met.”

Two months later, on June 18, Hamer reiterated his comments, saying that to his knowledge, the center’s board hadn’t met in more than a year.

“I have no clue what’s happening,” Hamer said. “Everything hinges on Doug, because he knows what’s going on.”

In fact, everyone the Gazette was able to reach said Jewell has all the answers.

But Jewell isn’t talking.

Bobbie Greenwood, another board member reached in April, said she didn’t want to be interviewed. “We’re really not doing much right now.”

The Free Meal Center The Free Meal Center A follow-up call to Greenwood on June 11 got the same result.

“I have nothing to comment on,” she said. “You have to talk with Douglas.”

Charlotte Bohan, also a board member, did not return calls for comment.

Jewell and his wife, Joyce, are the other two board members.

Beginning in March, the Gazette made regular phone calls to Jewell to determine whether The Free Meal Center planned to open.

Jewell returned one call on April 24, a day after Greenwood was first reached.

In that call, Jewell promised that big news was coming June 1. He asked the Gazette to wait until then to publish a story.

Since then, Jewell has not returned calls for comment.

Jewell’s April statement about big news in June was a surprise to Hamer. At that time, Hamer said that he wasn’t aware of any upcoming events at The Free Meal Center. He confirmed that again in June.

A real estate agent who represents Anna Mae Deon, the Pennsylvania woman who owns the property through Mayville, LLC, said Deon would love to see The Free Meal Center fulfill its plans and dreams.

“She’d love to sell the property,” said Thomas McMullen, a Realtor with Coldwell Banker James C. Otton Real Estate.

According to McMullen, Deon’s husband acquired the property in 1998. It was once home to The Country House Restaurant.

It’s been four years since the organization tried to open its doors. Planned openings began in March 2010 and continued through the years. For the last two years, Jewell has promised that an anonymous benefactor would rescue the center. Over the course of years, Jewell has stated several times that things were moving forward, and the center would open soon, usually in about six months.

No one ever received a meal. Weeds have overgrown the property. There’s a for sale sign out front.

And the promise of a free meal in Burleigh appears to have evaporated.

 

Timeline of The Free Meal Center

The Free Meal Center The Free Meal Center Jewell, as the director of the center, filed an IRS Form 990-EZ in 2010, 2011 and 2012, the filing required of non-profit organizations. Figures from those returns are used throughout the story. Published reports are from the Gazette’s archives.

 

2010

The Free Meal Center moved into the building on Route 9 in Burleigh on March 15. Though not mentioned at the time, the value of the property would later be set at $325,000.

The first sign of trouble came a few months later, when a scheduled opening of the soup kitchen for Thanksgiving was pushed back until sometime the following year.

Work on the property continued, however, and volunteers cleared brush from around the building and held fundraisers throughout the community for the center. This includes 32 students from Middle Township High School, members of the Key Club and the Red Cross Club.

In addition, Jewell said at the time “We’ve got two to four carpentry students and a teacher from the Special Services School getting quite a bit of work done for us as well.”

Permitting, however, is an issue. Although Jewell paid rent on the Burleigh building, it would be a year before he received building permits necessary to rehab the former restaurant.

Meanwhile, monthly rent and utilities were about $2,250.

According to the tax form retrieved from a website that monitors charitable organizations, the center took in about $65,000 in 2010. About $25,000 was spent on rent and utilities. Another $11,000 was spent on professional fees, contracting and printing, leaving the center with about $31,000 for the year.

A Messner Foundation donation of $30,745 made up half of the center’s income in 2010.

 

2011

In 2011, the center suffered a financial blow when the Tuckahoe-based Messner Foundation requested a refund of more than two-thirds of its 2010 donation.

According to tax records, The Free Meal Center returned $20,745 to the foundation on Nov. 24, 2011. The following year, the center returned another $1,988 in December, for a total refund of $22,733.

A $22,733 line item in the Messner Foundation’s 2012 tax return is labeled as “recoveries of contributions previously treated as qualifying distributions.”

When contacted for this story, Richard M. King, a Messner Foundation attorney, said that he was not authorized to discuss the refund.

In a February forum post to www.stardogger.net, a user identified as Mountain Man said he was part of the center and projected a June or July opening. In the post, Mountain Man promised to donate $25,000 to The Free Meal Center. Jewell’s nickname on his blog, www.mountainmanandcitygirl.com, is Mountain Man.

The Free Meal Center scheduled a workday April 9. Jewell said workers were needed to spread a truckload of mulch donated and delivered by Albrecht & Heun. “We want the outside spruced up for spring,” Jewell said. “Any help is appreciated.”

The Free Meal Center The Free Meal Center In June, Jewell pushed back the opening yet again. With the center’s permits finally in place, Jewell said he expected that it would be just four months until the center opened.

However, 2011 was a tough year for the center. A donated aluminum handicap ramp with an estimated value of $4,000 was reported stolen. Jewell said the center had been plagued by theft, and that metal had been stolen eight times in nine months, including one incident in which someone broke into the building.

After the handicap ramp was stolen, Jewell projected a 2011 opening, and expected the thieves to eat at the center. “In four months they’ll be sitting in our place eating free lunch, and they will not even feel guilty about it,” he said.

Finances were no better.

While it had taken in about $34,000 from contributions and fundraisers, the center still had rent and professional fees to pay, in addition to the foundation refund.

The Free Meal Center reported just $11,600 to the IRS as its end-of-year funds.

In November, the center pushed its opening back again, this time shooting for some time in 2012.

 

2012

In January 2012, Jewell began a push for donations to keep the center in its building on Route 9 in Burleigh.

In published reports, Jewel said The Free Meal Center would be evicted from the building if it didn’t raise $50,000 by March 31.

Jewell, a real estate agent, promised to wave his own $10,000 commission for the purchase of the building, if the surrounding community would donate $40,000 to make up the down payment.

Published accounts in March report that the center had $25,000 toward its goal. That figure, however, included the $10,000 commission that Jewell had agreed to wave.

In other published stories from early 2012, Jewell said that he had received “many $1,000 donations,” and had a “pile” of $50 checks.

The center also claimed that it received a $5,000 donation from a North Wildwood resident.

But the center’s 2012 IRS Form 990 appears to be at odds with published accounts of donations to the center.

Filed in February 2013, the center reported $3,500 in contributions, and another $3,900 in fundraising.

Net assets reported to the IRS for 2012 were $4,689. This number reflects paying three months’ rent, utilities, professional fees and a $1,988 refund to the Messner Foundation.

January 2012 was also the first time Jewell would mention a Cape May County couple that he said planned to donate $325,000 to purchase the building and property.

The Free Meal Center The Free Meal Center The promised benefactors would be invoked several times over the next couple of years, though they were never named, and the donation has yet to be realized.

A petition to keep the center open was started in January at www.thepetitionsite.com. The center had a goal of 1,000 signatures. They received 564.

The center was evicted from its building in Burleigh on April 1, 2012.

A part-time employee for the center was also hired in April. A published report says that she worked 20 hours a week at Jewell's real estate agency in Wildwood Crest. Jewell said the employee handled telemarketing and mailing duties. The employee is paid through the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development’s WorkForce 55+ program.

Published reports show that the part-time employee was still part of the center staff in July.

In July, Jewell said that he didn’t know how much money the center had in its coffers, but “We’re definitely in the black.”

 

2013

The IRS tax form isn’t yet available for 2013, however the center has been quiet.

In January, Jewell again promised that benefactors would save the center by paying the $325,000 purchase price. There would be enough left over to pay for construction, he said, as well as the salary of an executive director. Jewell said then that he hoped the money would materialize within 60 days.

“We just know it’s definitely coming,” Jewell said in January.

He projected that the center would be open by fall.

On June 21, Jewell posted to the center’s website and Facebook page that a large donation was coming, one that would cover purchasing the property, paying for renovations, with enough left over “to get the food operation off the ground.”

A year has passed, and since then, neither site has been updated.

 

2014

On April 24, 2014, Jewell seemed to allude to the faceless county benefactors yet again, when he told the Gazette that big news was coming in a few weeks. It was the only contact Jewell had with the newspaper since attempts to contact him began in March.

In April, the Gazette tested the Paypal donation form on The Free Meal Center’s website. It was still working, and the donation was accepted.

“I need you to give us till June 1, and then we’ll have a fantastic story for you,” Jewell said in April.

“We’ve got some delicate things happening. I just need these five weeks.”

  The Free Meal Center The Free Meal Center

Email David Benson at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or comment on this story at themiddletownshipgazette.com.

 

 

 


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