By Harry McCawley, The Republic
The Irwin-Sweeney-Miller Foundation, donor of tens of millions of dollars for groups and projects in Bartholomew County over the past 57 years, expects to end its giftgiving endeavors by the end of the year.
The remaining assets of the family foundation will be devoted to the Vision 20/20 project for the enhancement of downtown Columbus.
"We would expect to close the books sometime around the third quarter of this year," said Sarla Kalsi, executive director of the foundation.
The ISMF - established in 1952 by Nettie Sweeney Miller; her children, J. Irwin Miller and Clementine Tangeman; her sister, Elsie Irwin Sweeney; and family friend, George Newlin - has been a major supporter of numerous community initiatives such as The Commons, kidscommons, Mill Race Park, Su Casa, the Visitors Center, the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. alternative education program, Lincoln-Central Neighborhood Family Center and Love Chapel.
According to statistics prepared by the foundation staff, ISMF and members of the Miller family have donated in excess of $55 million to Bartholomew County projects over the years. In today's dollars that translates to approximately $101 million.
The decision to eventually spend down the assets was made following the death of J. Irwin Miller in 2004. His wife, Xenia, died in 2008.
"We chose to concentrate the foundation's investment in the Columbus community in honor of Irwin and Xenia Miller and Clementine Tangeman," said Lynne Maguire, chairwoman of the ISMF board and wife of Will Miller, son of J. Irwin and Xenia Miller.
"We wanted to use the remaining assets to have the biggest impact possible for a bright future in Columbus. We felt the best way to do this was by investing most of its remaining resources to help Vision 20/20 achieve its goal of a vibrant and welcoming downtown."
Much of those remaining assets already have been put to work on downtown projects. The foundation pledged $3 million to the construction of a new Commons.
The foundation already has donated property to Columbus Downtown Inc., a nonprofit offshoot of the Redevelopment Commission. One lot has been used for the parking garage between Second and Third streets, and another parcel is scheduled to be used for a new indoor sports complex east of Bartholomew County Jail.
Part of the block occupied by the parking garage is scheduled to be the site of an upscale apartment complex ringing three sides of the building.
The importance of the donation of those properties and other downtown investments by the foundation to the Vision 20/20 effort was stated in blunt terms by Tom Vujovich, president of the Redevelopment Commission.
"If we had been looking at the developer of the sports complex having to purchase the property, the project would not even have been proposed," said Vujovich. "Quite simply, the donation of this land was what made it possible."
Officers of the foundation have been narrowing the outreach effort since J. Irwin Miller's death. Shortly after that, the foundation staff notified five of its regular recipients that their allotments would be reduced incrementally over a period of several years.
"It was tough at first," said Alice Curry, executive director of Columbus Indiana Philharmonic, one of the organizations affected by the cutback. "On the other hand, the (foundation) staff was marvelous in providing us resources and help in working through the process so that we could develop additional sources of revenue. To be honest, I'm a much better executive director because of the experience."
Elizabeth Miller, daughter of J. Irwin and Xenia Miller, and one of the current members of the 11-member board, said that the question of how to spend the remaining assets boiled down to a simple question.
"In the end, we looked at how we could best benefit Columbus," she said. "As we looked at the Vision 20/20 plan for downtown, it was the obvious thing to do."