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San Rafael’s Canal Alliance gets new headquarters

October 30, 2023

By Adrian Rodriguez| Marin IJ

Omar Carrera, chief executive officer of Canal Alliance, visits the building the nonprofit recently purchased at 711 Grand Ave. in San Rafael on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023. Sections of the building are under renovation. (Sherry LaVars/Marin Independent Journal)

After years of renting offices, San Rafael’s Canal Alliance has found a home of its own.

The nonprofit has purchased the 28,690-square-foot complex that includes two adjacent buildings at 711 Grand Ave. for $6.94 million. The site is two stories and about twice the size of the organization’s offices at 91 Larkspur St. and 86 Belvedere Ave.

A $6 million renovation of the new site is underway. The renovation is expected to be completed next summer.

The expansion will allow the nonprofit to continue strengthening its programs and services for the Latino community, said Omar Carrera, the chief executive officer.

“In 2016, when I became the CEO, the first exercise that we did was understanding the organization’s strengths and weaknesses,” Carrera said. “What we identified as a major weakness was not having the capacity to stay in the neighborhood. We were tenants. The only thing that kept us in the community was a five-year lease.”

Carrera said gentrification doesn’t just affect residents, but it also impacts organizations like his. The need to stay close to the community it serves is paramount when it comes to making significant change, he said.

“Also, not being able to control our own space, it was preventing the Canal Alliance from launching new initiatives,” he said.

The nonprofit developed a plan to maintain its influence in the community, which included finding a permanent home, Carrera said.

Initially, the Canal Alliance will occupy about 17,000 square feet of the new space. The top floor of the easternmost building will be dedicated to expanding education and workforce programs. It will feature flexible classroom spaces, private offices and meeting spaces. The renovation will also include accessibility and safety upgrades.

Two other tenants, including Marin Transit, will remain at the site, Carrera said. This will allow the nonprofit to generate income with the possibility of future expansion, he said.

Canal Alliance will maintain a lobby, some office space and its food pantry at 91 Larkspur St.

Owning the new building will ensure the organization’s sustainability in serving the Latino community, while enabling continuous growth, Carrera said.

The effort was made possible with a $7.5 million contribution from Maja Kristin, a philanthropist who has been a longtime supporter of Canal Alliance, Carrera said.

“She saw that we had a vision that was trying to create transformative work and she helped by making a transformative investment,” Carrera said.

Kristin said she’s supported Canal Alliance since 1999, and wanted to do more. She said she has been impressed with Carrera’s leadership.

“If we don’t come up with a way to help communities self-sustain, it’s a missed opportunity,” Kristin said. “The Canal Alliance continues to do a great job.”

Canal Alliance has received $1.89 million in other grants as well as low-interest loans to support the project, Carrera said.

The nonprofit is seeking support to install solar panels and energy storage to prepare the building to serve as a community resilience hub.

Carrera said the nonprofit plans to expand on its workforce development programs. The nonprofit offers programs in transit operations, construction, small business development, nursing assistant work and banking.

Carrera said it wants to launch worker-owned co-ops to support Latino entrepreneurs and offer asset-building programs, including a microlending programs for small business owners.

Carrera said Latino residents make up 18.8% of the Marin population, but they represent 24.2% of workers in the public and private sectors. They also have the highest labor participation rates among all groups in the county, but a majority hold low-paying jobs, he said.

“I think it’s important to note that Canal Alliance’s impact is centered and measured by the economic stability of our clients,” said Richard Martinez, the nonprofit’s chief program officer. “We hold ourselves accountable. This new space will create much more awareness of the Canal Alliance and the services that we provide.”

San Rafael Mayor Kate Colin said Canal Alliance provides much needed services and programs to improve the lives of the residents of the Canal area and beyond.

“The population they serve is often bilingual, immigrant and low-income,” Colin said. “I support their efforts around workforce development as Canal Alliance has a deep understanding of the critical needs of the community and are laser focused on implementing programs that have meaningful outcomes.”

Read this story on the IJ.

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