Three goals guide James Foundation’s growing impact on Auburn
By Dave Kurtz for Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly | Indiana Economic Digest
On a stroll through downtown Auburn this spring, every turn reveals construction activity or the results of recent projects, all financed by the nonprofit James Foundation.
On one corner, workers riding a scissor lift are repairing the brickwork on a 19th-century hardware-store building rescued by the foundation last summer.
A block to the west, crews are upgrading a parking lot to match the handsome plaza and stage the foundation completed on an empty lot in 2016.
Less conspicuously, the foundation is refurbishing a former law office to serve as the new home of a downtown coffee shop.
All this activity is directed from a century-old office building on the courthouse square that the foundation refurbished as its own headquarters.
A gracefully curving, new staircase with a vintage look leads to the office of foundation President Vicki James. She and her husband, foundation Chairman Rick James, began the foundation in 2011 to formalize their growing contributions to charity.
“People would stop us in the street and say, ‘Hey, would you help us with this project?’” Vicki James said. Now, the foundation employs an executive director and other staff members and provides applications for grants on its website, thejamesfoundation.org.
The foundation’s assets have grown to $18 million, according to the latest report available from Guidestar, and the foundation gave more than $8 million in 2015.
The wealth accumulated with the success of Metal Technologies, an Auburn-based company Rick James co-founded that owns foundries in Auburn and in Michigan, Minnesota and Tennessee.
“Rick and I both came from very modest homes. We had great childhoods, both coming from families who had strong faith,” Vicki James said. Rick grew up in Auburn, Vicki in rural Avilla.
“We’ve just been blessed a hundred times over. It’s a little mind-boggling sometimes – very humbling,” she continued.
The Jameses have defined their mission as “guided by faith, love of community and passion for education.”
They started giving modestly through scholarships for DeKalb High School seniors intending to study engineering, liberal arts and vocational skills.
Giving to Trine University has put the Jameses’ names on the Rick L. and Vicki L. James University Center at the center of campus. A Guidestar report counts the foundation’s gifts to Trine at nearly $10 million from 2013-2015. An alumnus of Trine, Rick James chairs the university’s board of trustees.
Less visibly, the foundation sponsors a preschool program for underprivileged children in the DeKalb Central school district. It began in Waterloo and now is expanding to the district’s other elementary schools.
A graduate of East Noble High School, Vicki James has adopted her husband’s alma mater of DeKalb High School, “making sure their school looks great on the outside and the inside,” she said. The foundation sponsors special programs for teachers and provides a school T-shirt for every incoming freshman.
The foundation’s mission in downtown Auburn began with buying and renovating a retail building on Sixth Street and just kept spreading.
The future of the downtown’s cornerstone hardware building has fueled speculation among residents for months.
“We’ve been working with a person who will put in a very nice restaurant there, which should open by next year sometime,” Vicki James said. She can’t reveal the proprietor’s name yet, but she said, “It will be a prime rib, steak and chops place.”
A place to eat lunches outdoors and listen to small-scale concerts was the goal for the James Cultural Plaza on downtown’s west edge. It opened last Labor Day weekend, featuring a covered stage and decorative lighting that changes colors all night long.
Still another project of the James Foundation was showcased June 17 in an open house for Greenhurst Commons. The James Foundation joined with the Cairn Foundation of Steel Dynamics CEO Mark Millett and his wife, Abby, to buy the former Greenhurst Country Club in Auburn and convert it to a nature park.