Midtown's Doolen-Fruitvale neighborhood has its rougher edges—burglaries, poverty, copious graffiti—but a touch of serenity has taken root here on Flower Street, where Lorraine Barker stands before a gently flowing straw-bale wall, in the soothing shade of a dense mesquite.
Called the Flower Street Gateway, this micropark sits alongside a planned bike route, and the roughly $5,300 to create it came from anti-obesity efforts by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Flower Street was among 15 such projects scattered across Pima County. At least four of those efforts landed here, in central Tucson's maze of slump-block homes, aging trailer courts and sprawling apartment complexes.
Allocation of the federal stimulus money was largely steered by a popular organization called PRO Neighborhoods, for People, Resources and Organizations in Support of Neighborhoods. Begun 18 years ago as a combined effort by the city and county, along with the Community Foundation for Southern Arizona and the United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona, PRO specialized in directing funds to small neighborhood projects. It was not a corporate darling or top-heavy with overpaid directors. Its grants typically ranged from $500 to $5,000.
Most important, those funds sparked community collaborations such as this charming Flower Street oasis, where neighbors combined their expertise, sweat and goodwill to make Tucson a better place. Such work has earned PRO a sea of devotees across town.
Lorraine Barker is among them. "We have all sorts of trees and plants," says the pediatric social worker and budding neighborhood activist. "It just transformed this street."
Yet perhaps it was these human-scale successes that charted PRO's demise, in a nonprofit jungle where six-figure grants are the norm, and free-floating funds are voraciously snapped up by strapped agencies.
And PRO Neighborhoods is hardly a cash cow like the ones that groups such as the United Way have found in other funding streams, such as child-oriented First Things First. In fiscal year 2010 alone, that statewide program garnered the local United Way nearly $500,000 in administrative fees.
Either way, PRO closed its doors in late June, having lost funding both from United Way and the city. The county continued to contribute roughly $80,000 per year; the Community Foundation chipped in with an annual $25,000; and the United Way provided pro bono administrative support, which wasn't seen by some as enough to keep PRO afloat.
But many people interviewed for this story believe that PRO simply died from neglect. Although it was obvious that the group's main source of current funding—the CDC money—would soon end, it appears that no one raised a finger to identify new alternatives. That includes Lana Bruno, PRO's final executive director, who apparently who wasn't even directed to compete for new grants when she was hired.
Others fault PRO's tight-fisted management structure, where control was limited to representatives from the four funders.
"I think it's a miracle that it lasted as long as it did," says Judith Anderson, who worked with PRO Neighborhoods as a community organizer from 2005 to 2010 and later assisted as a consultant. "There were just four people making all the decisions. From the very beginning, they resisted having any board, or any other governing body having oversight for what was going on."
The results are obvious. Bruno was hired in the summer of 2010, replacing Dina Scalone-Romero, who left PRO to take a job as manager of community relations for Cox Communications.
According to sources familiar with PRO, Bruno walked into an organization flush with funding opportunities, and simply let them die.
Information obtained by the Tucson Weekly reveals that PRO had a projected budget of just more than $609,000 for fiscal year 2011. For 2012, the projected numbers held at nearly $403,000. While a good share of those totals include the federal CDC grant, it's clear that effective grant-hunting and community partnerships could have kept PRO afloat.
Instead, the four funders hired Bruno and directed her to tread water. "The fact is that she was working with us and doing exactly what we asked her to do," says Community Foundation vice president Evan Mendelson. "We did not ask her to write grants. What we wanted her to focus on was long-term sustainability."
One might suggest that didn't work out too well.
The city's liaison to PRO was on vacation at press time and unavailable for comment. The county's rep during Bruno's tenure has since retired, and attempts to contact Bruno were unsuccessful.
The United Way acted as PRO's fiscal agent, and in earlier interviews, United Way president Tony Penn made it quite clear that he was Bruno's boss. But Penn also failed to explain why PRO was allowed to fail.
Then, in July, when I tried to obtain information about Bruno's fundraising activities—or lack thereof—Penn didn't respond to my emails or phone calls. I was stonewalled for nearly a month, until I requested to see tax forms that detailed PRO's financing. I received a response from Penn the next day, and limited information a few days after that.
It appears that Bruno was indeed simply hired as captain of a sinking ship. Reports also describe the atmosphere on that sinking ship as savage: Apparently, in order to receive their severance pay, several employees were required by United Way to sign nondisclosure agreements, restricting them from being interviewed for this story.
Judith Anderson was not among them. She says she usually worked at home, to avoid an office culture she describes as "toxic."
When asked about PRO's final months, and whether rumors of formal workplace complaints filed against Bruno were true, Penn declined to comment.
Anderson and others also question what became of a reserve "rainy day" fund of $50,000 to $75,000 purportedly held by the United Way for PRO's use.
"When things started going wrong—when they started saying, 'There's no funding for this; there's no funding for that'—we were saying, 'Well, if this isn't a rainy day, then what is?'" Anderson recalls. "We said, 'Use the rest of the money.' And it wasn't there."
Another former staffer has similar memories. "We asked United Way where that money is," the ex-employee said. "And we still haven't gotten a straight answer."
Neither did I: Penn, in a email to the Weekly, responds only: "There is no 'rainy day' or reserve fund for PRO Neighborhoods."
All of which raises eyebrows out on Flower Street, where Lorraine Barker and others enjoy their new little oasis, and lament the loss of the widely adored organization that made it happen.
"I don't know about all the politics involved," Barker says. "I just think it's really sad."