By CAROL ROBIDOUX
Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY – The real estate “vacancy” sign planted in front of the Folsom Road Salvation Army headquarters is truly a sign of the times.
The organization, which serves families in need in the Greater Derry area, is downsizing – relocating to a yet-to-be-named different space with a more affordable rent.
Newly enlisted commanders, Lt. Chris Williams and his wife, Lt. Kiley Williams, took over the helm of the local outpost July 1, after Captains Steve and Sally Warren were transferred to the Laconia Salvation Army operation.
It's a familiar predicament in a sputtering economy.
Finding ways to save on expenses while maintaining services is the challenge for many local businesses and charities, and the Salvation Army has not been immune to the need for institutional belt-tightening.
According to the 2010 Salvation Army Financial Report, which accounts for 7,773 U.S. operations, revenue from public support was down from $2.01 billion in 2007 to 1.76 billion in 2008. The organization's net assets dropped by $561 million in 2008, after a gain of $1.78 billion the previous year. The financial picture is a multi-layered portrait that includes investment losses and reduction in government-sponsored grants in addition to reduced public support.
Rachel Pitt of Londonderry, who owns the Folsom Road property which has been home to the Salvation Army for the past six years, said she tried to negotiate a more affordable rent for the organization when their contract was up for renewal, but was unable to come to a new lease agreement.
“I guess it's the economy. They were looking to pay about half their current rent. We tried to negotiate, but it didn't work out,” said Pitt. “It's too bad. The services they provide in this economy are more and more in need, and there are fewer people able to donate.”
She said she is still looking for a new tenant for the Folsom Road property, which is actually two buildings.
“We're prepared to split the property – it's a fully-functioning house and a hall,” said Pitt.
Town Planning Director George Sioras said the property's zoning should make it attractive to a variety of businesses looking for a highly visible move-in ready space. He recognizes that the Salvation Army's move signals a growing trend in town among businesses and organizations seeking more affordable rent by moving to other buildings.
For example, Scorpion Tattooing just moved from Rockingham Road to a vacant storefront on Manchester Road, and a billboard outside Bark Avenue pet grooming is announcing its move up the road to another Crystal Avenue location.
“In this economy we're seeing a lot of that, shuffling of businesses. It creates opportunity for other businesses. And right now is actually a good time to start a business, too – rents aren't so bad. For every empty store front you see in town, there's a new business moving in, or existing businesses looking for a new location,” Sioras said. “It's really a renters market.”
Williams said there are a few prime locations under consideration by the organization, but nothing has been finalized. The goal is to be settled into new digs by September 1, in time to launch its annual Red Kettle campaign, the organization's main fundraiser leading into the holiday season.
“We are currently wrapping up our Back to School Back Pack program – in fact we still have about three backpacks in need of filling, if anyone is interested in helping. It's like an Angel Tree, people take a tag, buy a backpack and fill it with school supplies. We will be completing that from our current location, before we make the move,” said Williams.
The message to the community is that the Salvation Army may be moving, but its outreach in the community is here to stay.
“It's a hectic time. We'll be moving and then jumping right into the kettle campaign,” said Williams. “We're looking at a smaller location, one where we can utilize the space better. We'll still have our Sunday services, and we'll still run the clothes closet and other programs. None of that will change.”