EDGE sits down with gay philanthropist Mel Heifetz

by Matthew E. Pilecki

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday January 21, 2011

After a decade long legal battle, the city reached a settlement with the Boy Scouts of America that allows the organization to keep their Philadelphia headquarters under the condition it would provide space to hold community events. Local philanthropist and real estate tycoon Mel Helfeitz, however, refused to accept the agreement and put in a $1.5 million bid for the building.

Over the past 80 years, the Cradle of Liberty chapter of the BSA, which specifically excludes gays, atheists and agnostics, has enjoyed a sweetheart deal with the city that allowed them to rent the building for $1 a year. When Philadelphia officials threatened to evict the Boy Scouts if they did not abide by the city's non-discrimination policy, the Cradle of Liberty chapter filed suit in federal court. A jury ruled against the city last June, citing the demands violated the BSA's constitutionally-guaranteed right of freedom of association.

In order to dodge an estimated $960,000 in legal fees, Mayor Michael Nutter agreed to sell the building to the Boy Scouts at a fraction of its market value.

"I thought that was a bit unreasonable and unfair and I couldn't believe that the mayor was going to actually allow them, condone, and support them by giving them the building for far less than it was worth," Heifetz told EDGE. "Upon hearing this I thought this shouldn't be the end of it. There really should be a better conclusion. And with that I contacted a lawyer that was involved-he offered to assist in making an offer and submitting the paper work."

Heifetz first met Nutter when the politician was working for former City Councilmember John Anderson, who was a closeted gay man. Though the two hadn't spoken in years, Nutter reminded Heifetz of their connection at a mutual friend's holiday party. Heifetz soon became a chief financial supporter of Nutter's campaign, and he considered the mayor an ally to LGBT Philadelphians until recently.

"[Nutter] won a skirmish, but he hasn't won the battle," he said. "The battle is continuing and there are even more people coming forward. I am so overwhelmed with people that have emailed me or gotten in touch with me to tell me 'I was an Eagle Scout too and I am also gay.' It's almost as if half the population of Americans that were Eagle Scouts are gay."

While the Philadelphia Inquirer reported the city is unlikely to refute the deal in favor of Heifetz's offer, he is confident he will be able to get enough support from City Council before the sale is finalized. He added residents adjacent to the building have expressed their opposition over the sale-it could change hands after the deed expires.

"I have a vision of donating that building to a nonprofit organization that doesn't discriminate and I'm willing to do whatever is necessary to achieve that," declared Heifetz. "I have said in my agreement of sale that I would put in the deed that there would be no change in height and footprint of that building forever. The Boy Scouts have no such requirement-after 10 years they could sell it at a great profit and just walk away."

Heifetz, a former Eagle Scout, joined the Army when he was 18 and spent his first six months stationed in Germany. He was a scoutmaster to an overseas BSA chapter during his tour.

Heifetz quickly dismissed allegations his actions are malicious in any way.

"Nothing that we're doing affects [young Scouts] at all-there are no Scout meetings in that building, it is an administrative building for a very small staff," Heifetz said. "The Boy Scouts are just lagging behind public opinion. If they would change their policy, they're welcome to stay in that building. They're welcome to be there for the remainder of my life and yours. I'd have no problem and that's the first thing that we'd like them to do-change the policy. In the absence of that, move out."

Paradoxically, the Cradle of Liberty chapter adopted a non-discrimination policy in 2003 that allowing gays to join, but the BSA threatened to revoke their charter once they learned about it.

Malcolm Lazin, executive director of Equality Forum, told EDGE the sale should outrage any Philadelphia taxpayer.

"Given the financial condition the city is in, you would expect the city to be selling city property at the best price-not giving it away," he said. "Obviously from the viewpoint of principle, it's very nice to raise a rainbow flag but it makes that flag raising meaningless. I hear [Nutter] talking the talk, but if it's not backed up by walking the walk-walking the walk is supporting equality for all Philadelphians including on the basis of sexual orientation. In this particular case the Nutter administration has caved in to the Boy Scouts and their bigotry."

A 2008 recipient of the Human Rights Campaign's Humanitarian of the Year award, Heifetz has been a prominent LGBT figures for decades. When the William Way Center couldn't afford their $274,000 mortgage, he single-handedly paid it off. His contributions have kept several HIV/AIDS non-profits afloat and he opened the city's first gay hotel, The Alexander Inn. And at the peak of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s, Heifetz put countless uninsured people with the virus on his health insurance plan.

"No-I've barely gotten used to the name of philanthropist," Heifetz said when asked if he considers himself a hero. "It's not a name that I grew up with or really wanted to be identified with. I'm embarrassed enough at having myself described as that, but then I got an award as a humanitarian. Humanitarian-I'm sorry-I don't know what that's about. But I like to help people-I don't have a day of the week that me or my staff don't support or help somebody."

Heifetz is a nominee for EDGE's Best Out Business Leader of the Year award.