Iron Gate soup kitchen. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

Iron Gate soup kitchen. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

Heavy gray rain clouds hovered over Trinity Episcopal Church on Tuesday morning, and in July in Oklahoma, that presents a double-whammy for patrons of the Iron Gate soup kitchen. Dozens of people lined up outside waiting for food had to contend with pouring rain followed by muggy heat.

It’s been nearly 10 months since Iron Gate’s proposed move from its downtown location to the Pearl District fell through spectacularly, leaving the facility stuck in a setting they say is too small to fit their needs.

There’s too many staff and volunteers for the lower level of Trinity Episcopal Church, where Iron Gate resides, executive director Connie Cronley argues, and there’s too many patrons. In the mornings, the facility often serves more than 700 plates (patrons can have more than one plate). Then they quickly turn around to hand out groceries to more than 100 needy families in the same space.

So when their proposed move to a location near Third Street and South Peoria Avenue didn’t work out last September, Cronley said, it was a big blow to morale (and a loss of 18 months of work). But they learned from their mistakes and started fresh, scouting out a new location, she said.

“We are not going away, we are not giving up, we are persistent in our search,” she said. “We have been doing for eight months now a very quiet, diligent search for a property that fits our needs.”

Connie Cronley, executive director of the Iron Gate soup kitchen, takes a look at the facility's menu for the upcoming week. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

Connie Cronley, executive director of the Iron Gate soup kitchen, takes a look at the facility’s menu for the upcoming week. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

Cronley said Iron Gate has “zeroed in” on a property, though she would not disclose its location, saying only that it was “not in the Pearl District.”

Last year, when the soup kitchen announced it planned to move to the location on South Peoria Avenue, many residents there were caught off guard and vocally opposed the move. Eventually the Board of Adjustment ruled against the move after weeks of public scrutiny.

“What was good about that whole exercise, as painful as it was, was that it brought the need for Iron Gate’s facility to the public attention,” Cronley said. “We had so much public support. We had hundreds of likes on our Facebook page from people saying ‘how can we help? How can we support?’”

Cronley said she’s since “commiserated” with Tulsa County Commissioner Karen Keith, who fought her own contentious, public battle to find a location for the county’s Juvenile Justice Center. Commissioners voted last month 3-0 to place the facility at the 7.5-acre Storey Wrecker Service property at 10 N. Elwood Ave.

Prior to that decision, Keith had settled on a location in north Tulsa she believed “would be perfect” for the Juvenile Justice Center, which has long outgrown its current facility at 315 S. Gilcrease Road.

However, that site was not met with support from north Tulsa leaders, nor the community, which ultimately submarined any chance of building the facility there.

In many ways, that project mirrored Iron Gate’s efforts to move from their current location at 501 S. Cincinnati Ave. 

Keith said that when she picked the north Tulsa site her initial concern was if the plans fit with the city’s master plan. When she was told it was a fit, she went full steam ahead.

“We were so naive,” she said. “We didn’t reach out to the elected officials and we probably should have. We just knew we had this beautiful project that would have all this economic stimulus around it.

“I feel Connie’s angst, I really do.”

The soup kitchen has conducted its search a bit more quietly this time, though Cronley said she doesn’t want to surprise residents with the new location (wherever it will be). Instead of an initial announcement in the media, she said the staff will meet face to face with people who live in the selected area to inform them that Iron Gate is coming and that they will need help.

“Everything was a little premature last time,” Cronley said of the Pearl District failure. “We would like to do some groundwork with the neighbors wherever we settle before we announce it publicly … I don’t think we want to go in quietly by night and open up the doors the next day.

Iron Gate soup kitchen. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

A plaque outside the Iron Gate soup kitchen. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

“So I don’t know how long that will take, but I know it will be an open, deliberative communication process. We learned the importance of that last time.”

What is for sure is that the new location will be near downtown, because the facility’s board of directors wants them not to stray too far from its current location. Construction plans for the proposed Pearl District location last year included a 16,000 square-foot facility with a larger parking lot than Trinity’s. The building at the new location they’ve selected will be similar, Cronley said.

There’s been a push in other cities to humanize the process of a food pantry. As it stands now, many (such as Iron Gate) are located in small facilities that require their guests to stand in long, public lines in order to receive food. Some cities have created smaller satellite facilities across town they distribute food to, effectively taking the items to the public. While Iron Gate isn’t going this route, the hope is that a larger building allows for their guests to stay inside, and out of the elements.

“It’s humiliating,” Cronley said. “They have to stand in the rain, or the heat, or the snow, or whatever, and everyone who goes by knows they’re there for free food. A larger facility would help change that.”

The desire to move was spurred by what Cronley said is an increase in visitors seen since the 2008 recession. A calendar in a hallway helps staff keep track of how busy they are — most days they serve between 500-700 plates. The busiest day in Iron Gate history was this past February, when they served 1,012 plates.

The grocery pantry is a little bit harder to track, she said, because families carpool together, or ride the bus. Instead of being given a pre-packed bag of food, patrons go through a line and pick out what food their family will eat, in order to avoid waste. But in 2013, Iron Gate distributed more than 64,000 bags of groceries to individuals.