“I wouldn’t recommend that people get a new building by going through what we went through,” says Jim Womack. “But it’s actually been a very positive thing.”
Womack stands in the parking lot of the new Family Support Services headquarters. The morning sunlight reflects off the building’s mirrored surface. Located at 2209 SW Seventh Ave., the iconic building was first constructed in 1959 as the Medical Tower, designed for doctors’ offices across from the old Northwest Texas Hospital. After the hospital moved west, the building hosted other businesses, most recently serving as the corporate office for Cactus Feeders.
The building sat vacant for several years until 2020. That’s when Womack, as the organization’s CEO, found himself leading a sprawling community organization without a home base. On Sunday morning, January 19, 2020, Family Support Services’ downtown location was destroyed by fire.
“Basically, we lost everything,” he says. “If we weren’t in Amarillo or the Texas Panhandle, I don’t know that we would have recovered from all of this.” But the community stepped in to offer its own support to the nonprofit, which has existed in some form since 1908. (See sidebar.)
By the afternoon of the fire, Guyon Saunders Resource Center had offered workspace for FSS employees. So did Potter County and the Wesley Community Center. Texas Panhandle Centers offered administrative space. A few weeks later, Boys Ranch opened up its building near downtown for FSS counselors. “We were kind of spread out and a lot of staff were working from home,” says Womack. This was pre-pandemic. The timing allowed the organization to jump into remote work a few weeks before COVID forced it on the rest of the city. “Oddly enough, that’s one of the positive things that came out of the fire. We had already set up a Telehealth system for counselors to see clients over a laptop or phone, and do sessions from their house,” he adds.
Then the Amarillo Independent School District board voted to allow the rent-free use of a building near AISD’s headquarters for six months. That was around the start of March 2020. “We moved everything into the building and then, two weeks later, we moved everybody back out,” Womack says. The pandemic arrived in Amarillo and everything shut down.
But the organization continued serving the community, offering behavioral health and wellness services, counseling sessions, support groups, emergency and transitional housing for families escaping violence, and crisis services for victims of sexual assault, family violence or human trafficking. With a staff of around 60, FSS also provides education and prevention services and operates a veterans resource center.
“We never stopped services through all that,” says Womack, who also was diagnosed with cancer during that period and was homebound for several months during his treatment. It was a rough year. “Our staff is amazing. They kept it running,” he says.
But they were spread out until Ben Whittenburg, a partner at Gaut Whittenburg Emerson Commercial Real Estate, showed Womack the old Medical Tower building. With the Amarillo Area Foundation having purchased the fire-damaged downtown property, Family Support Services was able to buy the building on Seventh and rehabilitate it.
“The building has a really strong foundation and was made to last for 100 years. We could have moved in without much work, but we decided to gut it,” Womack says. The decision came more from risk avoidance than cosmetics. The boiler, for example, could last two years or 10 years. If it broke, the organization would be forced to move out again.
Thankfully, the renovation qualified for a Texas Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) loan, designed to incentivize property owners to lower operating costs by upgrading to a more efficient and resilient infrastructure. That loan gave FSS the freedom to install state-of-the-art lighting, electrical, plumbing and HVAC. “Basically, we’re going to save $100,000 a year on utilities,” Womack says.
CKP Construction has served as the general contractor, helping the organization navigate the challenging, post-pandemic construction environment. With a few finishing touches still to come, FSS finally opened the new building in April.
It’s 30 percent larger than the previous headquarters downtown. It’s twice as large as the temporary location next to AISD. And it’s perfectly positioned near the city’s new bus terminal and the Transformation Park development to serve the homeless community. “We’re closer to the population we really want to reach. The whole area seems to be renovating,” says Womack of the neighborhood. “There’s new life.”
The City’s First Charity
Today’s Family Support Services is actually a mingling of multiple Amarillo nonprofits over the decades, but can trace its lineage back to the very first charity established in the city. In 1908, several Amarillo businessmen gathered to form the Associated Charities, with banker Charles A. Fisk as its president. Later reorganizations resulted in a name change to the United Charities and then, in 1927, to the Social Welfare Association. In 1949, Social Welfare merged with the Travelers Aid Society to form a charity called the Family Service of Amarillo. The 1970s saw the formation of organizations to help women, including the Amarillo Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Service and the Domestic Violence Council. These merged in 1983 to form Amarillo’s Rape Crisis/Domestic Violence Center, and that organization merged with the counseling-focused Family Guidance Center in 1993 to form what is now Family Support Services.