Celso Campoberde, a 24 year-old that has been coming to Primo Boxing Club for eight years, trains in the ring with Joe Pommier (June 27, 2011)
Paul Wellman (file)

The Primo Boxing Club has been knocked down more than once during its 31-year history, but it always manages to get back on its feet. This time, with the backing of the City Council and several local foundations willing it to succeed, Primo is ready for another round.

With little fanfare or comment Tuesday afternoon, the council agreed to a one-year lease (and an option for two more) with Primo Boxing, ensuring the nonprofit, which works with an impoverished and high-risk segment of the population not often reached elsewhere in the city, will continue on at the old fire station at 701 East Haley Street.

Jean and Joe Pommier stand outside Primo Boxing
Paul Wellman (file)

The agreement comes after months of discussions between the city and owners Jean and Joe Pommier. A year ago, the club — profiled in a July 2011 Santa Barbara Independent cover story — was in danger of losing its home after financial trouble backed the Pommiers into a corner. While the couple has positively impacted countless S.B. youths, they’ve always run the operation on a razor-thin budget. And with the limping economy and subsequent loss of funding, along with the cancellation of a large and successful fundraiser, Primo was in bad shape.

In April 2009, the city waived $33,760 in past-due rent and penalties on its property, and it lowered Primo’s annual rent to $10,000. Primo paid in 2010, but for the next two years, it wasn’t able to make it. In August, the city served a notice of lease termination. Since then, the Pommiers and Primo’s Advisory Board have been at the table with City Hall, trying to come up with a solution to keep the boxing compound open. And now, with the help of several foundations, the city is giving Primo another shot. “It’s a very important [nonprofit], and I’m glad we came to this point and hope to see a successful future at Primo,” Mayor Helene Schneider said.

A small group working out at the Primo Boxing Club on a Monday afternoon step in the ring for a photo.
Paul Wellman

A group rounded up by Geoff Green of the Fund for Santa Barbara has committed $30,000 per year for the next three years, with the priority on paying rent. “I told them this is it for Primo,” said city Parks and Rec director Nancy Rapp. “If you want to help them be successful, this is a time to step up.” In exchange, the city will wipe Primo’s slate clean. “They definitely didn’t have to do that,” said Joe Pommier.

But, while the city has been more than welcoming for years to accommodate a program that officials know is a success, it also has to pay its own bill. If Primo misses a payment, that would be the end of the agreement. “They understand that there will be no coming back to the city,” Rapp said. “The city has been very generous with them,” Green said. “They realize they have very little to stand on.”

But the little they do have to stand on is a longstanding commitment to the underserved in Santa Barbara. The Pommiers have been running Primo for 17 years. They have the place open six days a week in the after-school hours for anyone who wants to work out or hang out. Joe will spar with some kids while Jean helps others with homework. Some just hang out. But all in all, nearly 200 young people are there on a regular occasion, the majority of them younger than 18 years old, and most coming from extremely impoverished homes.

Francisco Santana puts in a quick workout at Primo
Paul Wellman

It’s always been a lean operation. Joe Pommier is the only one who takes a salary, and there is no one who writes grants or actively fundraises on Primo’s behalf. In 2011, including wages, benefits, insurance, utilities, rent, maintenance, supplies, and gas for the van, Primo had a budget of only $82,000. “They’re a small group of people committed to doing it no matter what happens,” Green said.

That is changing with the new foundation support. Not only is the Fund for Santa Barbara chipping in with some cash but also with technical assistance. That means building the infrastructure to make Primo sustainable — doing some development with the Advisory Board, teaching them how to write grants, fundraise, and secure funding commitments to take Primo well into the future.

The coalition of supporters that has grown around Primo in the year since it received its eviction notice includes not only the Fund for Santa Barbara but also the McCune Foundation, the Bower Foundation, the Rotary Club, and the Goleta Lions Club. “It’s definitely been a community effort,” Joe Pommier said. “We definitely count on the support of the community.”


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