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Sexual assault center being forced out of longtime home

Special Photo After 26 years, the Gwinnett Sexual Assault Center is being asked to relocate from its Duluth home. The city, which leases the space to GSAC for $1 per year, recently reported that asbestos had been found in the building's basement tiling and window glazing.

Special Photo After 26 years, the Gwinnett Sexual Assault Center is being asked to relocate from its Duluth home. The city, which leases the space to GSAC for $1 per year, recently reported that asbestos had been found in the building's basement tiling and window glazing.

DULUTH -- The Gwinnett Sexual Assault Center is, to be blunt, the kind of place most people don't know exist and, hopefully, never have to visit. It is a place of healing and assessment, trauma and advocacy. It's made its home in the city of Duluth for 26 years, gratefully paying "rent" of $1 per annum.

Now GSAC -- a nonprofit which provides 24-hour "comprehensive services to victims and families impacted by crimes of sexual assault and child sexual (and) physical abuse" -- is being asked to leave.

"The short of it all is that this building is in very bad condition and GSAC was given notice in September of last year that we were going to need them to vacate the building by July of this year," city of Duluth spokeswoman Alisa Williams said, "due to inspections we had done of the building that found mold, asbestos and termites."

The latter part, though, is news to GSAC executive director Ann Burdges.

"We were not aware they had any information on those issues (until a letter sent earlier this month)," Burdges said. "And it wasn't shared."

Documents obtained by the Daily Post show an inspection commissioned by the city last July revealed small amounts of asbestos in samples from two areas of the building, which GSAC has occupied since 1987: about 100 square-feet of basement tile and glazing around a few windows.

Burdges acknowledged the presence of termites, which have made occasional appearances since the economy went sour and the center was forced to discontinue expensive preventative measures. But she said no mention of asbestos had been made until a May 1 letter denying GSAC's request for an extension at the facility.

"If the city had suspicions of it, they didn't engage our participation in the process," she said.

Duluth will be tearing the building down in July, when its fiscal year rolls over and money budgeted for the razing becomes available.

"It has been understood by GSAC that the city would not be making big repairs or maintaining the building at any time during their $1 a year lease with us and that we would eventually be tearing it down," Williams said. "It is really not safe or healthy for occupation of the building any longer."

Regardless of the circumstance, it appears Gwinnett's only dedicated sexual assault center, its 15 full- and part-time staff members and some 20 volunteers will be finding a new home -- and, one way or another, finding a way to pay for it after essentially living rent-free for its entire existence.

Burdges, who has been with the center since 1994, said GSAC is actively searching for a new location that will "certainly" remain in the county. Ideally, the center will stay at a location in close proximity to area hospitals and various police departments, which aid (and sometimes host) its work, she said. The main problem, though, will be rent.

As is the case for most nonprofits, the economy of the last several years has hampered GSAC's services. The hope was that, with things starting to turn around, the center could begin to recoup some of its funding cuts and bring back on-site counseling services that were ended in 2008.

"That would've been the one area where we would've liked to start building back up," Burdges said. But any "extra" money will now likely go toward leasing (and eventually purchasing) a new building.

"It is highly probable that we may have to lease a space in the interim," Burdges said, "and unfortunately that'll require the use of funds that would otherwise directly serve victims."

The city of Duluth said it has offered to help GSAC find a new home.

For more information on the Gwinnett Sexual Assault Center or to make donations, visit gsac-cac.org.