“It was serendipitous because we were having some internal conversations around a campaign, but at that point, it really did not include a capital component and certainly not a goal of this magnitude.”—Doug Wolf

Thanks to a charity basketball game in an aging gym, hundreds of children in Columbus’ Milo-Grogan neighborhood will soon be playing basketball and much more in a state-of-the-art facility designed to be a community centerpiece.

Late last year, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Ohio and the Champion Cos., a multifamily development firm, razed the 65-year-old clubhouse in Milo-Grogan and broke ground on a new 24,160-square-foot facility at 1012 Cleveland Ave. When it opens in 2022, the new clubhouse will combine two existing neighborhood clubs and house the nonprofit’s administrative offices. Community, civic and business partners have donated nearly $10 million to the $13.5 million campaign, with Champion providing a $2.5 million lead gift.

The birth of the project took place years earlier when Brian Yeager, Champion’s CEO, attended a Cleveland Cavaliers game with another developer. After some friendly back and forth about their respective basketball skills, they decided to host a charity game in Columbus, with the losing team donating $25,000 to the winning team’s charity of choice. Yeager chose Boys & Girls Clubs and a game was scheduled at the Milo-Grogan clubhouse.

Champion won the prize, but during the game Yeager noticed the wear-and-tear throughout the gym, including basketball rims that tilted sideways. “I just had a strong conviction about how much this club needed some improvements,” Yeager says. “I knew it wasn’t the best environment for all of the kids that went to the club every day.”

Yeager matched the prize amount to give the Boys & Girls Clubs a $50,000 gift that day, and he began conversations with the organization’s leadership about doing much more. They first considered renovating the facility before deciding to launch a comprehensive campaign to fund the construction of a new one. Yeager also teamed up with Jordan Miller, a retired Fifth Third Bank regional market president, to co-chair the initiative. Yeager and Miller had done business together in the past, and when Yeager told Miller about the project, he didn’t hesitate to get involved.

“It was serendipitous because we were having some internal conversations around a campaign, but at that point, it really did not include a capital component and certainly not a goal of this magnitude,” says Doug Wolf, CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Ohio. “Brian and his team really strengthened this campaign.”

For Miller, the project was personal. As a child growing up in Milo-Grogan, he visited the clubhouse regularly as a member of what was then the Boys Club. For seven years, he’d go to the clubhouse with his brothers after school and stay until their father picked them up at the end of his workday.

“This is a kickstart for that neighborhood,” Miller says. “It’s a blue-collar neighborhood with a lot of hardworking people. They deserve this kind of place for their children. When I look at all that the city of Columbus and Milo-Grogan has done to get me off to a good start, I can’t think of a more fitting way to give something back to the community.”

In addition to housing the nonprofit’s administrative offices, the new clubhouse will have theater seating, an outdoor garden, career development rooms and a new gym. The old clubhouse served about 100 kids, and Wolf said many more will be able to access services in the new building. In 2019, the Boys & Girls Clubs served about 4,200 youth across the region, a number expected to increase when the new clubhouse opens next year.

Before the old building was demolished last October, the organization opened the clubhouse to the community for a final goodbye. Club alumni shared their stories, including Jim Cleamons, the Linden-McKinley High School and Ohio State University basketball standout who played nine seasons in the NBA and won titles as a player and coach. The Milo-Grogan gym, which opened in 1955, was one of the first venues to showcase his talent, and alumni like Cleamons will be recognized and honored in the new facility.

“I know there were some members of the Milo-Grogan community and our staff who shed some tears when that building went down because there are so many memories there,” Wolf says. “We will honor those memories in the new space, and there’s lots of excitement for what’s to come with this new building.”

Shannon Shelton Miller is a freelance writer.