The beginnings of the grand plan to unify social services in one place at the former Ramada Inn are suddenly a reality.
When Morgantown magazine wrote in October 2019 about the vision for housing social service groups at the former Ramada Inn on Scott Avenue south of town, the project seemed to have momentum. And then, nothing. What was the hold up?
“Money.” That’s Robert O’Neil’s plain statement of it. He’s executive vice president and chief administrative services officer for WVU Health System. WVUHS formed a subsidiary, Morgantown Community Resources, to serve as interim owner of the property after Mark Nesselroad and the Hazel Ruby McQuain Trust bought it at auction in 2018 to anchor the vision.
Turns out it costs a lot of money to bring an unoccupied, 40-year-old, 110,000-square foot hotel up to date and renovate spaces for new uses. So when the state granted the project $3.5 million in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding in October 2020 and said it had to be spent by the end of the year, things happened fast.
In short order, the roof and heating and cooling system were replaced, O’Neil says. The sprinkler system was extended to all parts of the building. The elevators were repaired, and the commercial kitchen was completely renovated and modernized.
The funding also paid for the interior build-out for several early tenants—primary among them, Bartlett Housing Solutions. The nature of Bartlett House’s presence at the Ramada is not yet certain, says Executive Director Keri DeMasi. Will it replace the organization’s downtown emergency shelter, for example, or operate as another site? The board aims to decide that within days, she says. In either case, operation there will begin soon: in February if it’s simply another site, or more like March if it’s a complete move. In addition to temporary shelter, the facility will hold 15 furnished apartments in support of Bartlett Housing Solutions’ commitment to moving people out of emergency shelter into more permanent housing as quickly as possible.
From the time community dialogue about the Ramada site started in February 2019, Bartlett Housing Solutions had a couple fundamental conditions before it could agree to operate there:
- That a meal operation would also set up at the site. That condition has been fulfilled, although neither DeMasi nor O’Neil would say what organization will run that before it’s publicly announced.
- An adequate public transportation schedule between downtown and the Ramada site. Mountain Line Transit Authority runs hourly to Scott Avenue 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, says CEO David Bruffy. Mountain Line is prepared to add Sunday service and run later into the evenings to cover the evening meal period, he says, and is working with the stakeholders to finalize the schedule.
In addition to Bartlett Housing Solutions and a feeding program, build-out is also being completed for a planned sobering center. This will provide a place where law enforcement can take people who are publicly under the influence of drugs or alcohol that is supervised and isn’t jail or the emergency room. While the push to spend the funding has gotten the facility ready a little ahead of the entity that will occupy it, the planned center has been in research and discussion for many months, says Assistant City Manager Emily Muzzarelli—it was far enough along, for example, that the design for separate sides for men and women, a central observation room, and showers was already clear. Many organizations and agencies in town see the need for a non-medical, non–law enforcement service that can discern the nature of a person’s intoxication—an instance of poor judgment? Or a chronic problem?—and make referrals to appropriate resources, Muzzarelli says. With build-out paid for, all that is needed is a funding stream to support a small staff and minimal supplies.
For those who want the nitty-gritty, here are a few additional details:
- As operations ramp up in late winter and early spring, WVUHS will amend the by-laws of Morgantown Community Resources to make it a freestanding community organization, O’Neil says. That group is expected to have a board of directors that initially will be made up of those who’ve brought this project to reality as well as, over time, representatives of tenant organizations, and it will eventually hire a property manager.
- Tenant organizations will pay a reasonable rental rate to cover ongoing operations and maintenance and build up a reserve for replacement fund.
- The City of Morgantown will annex the property. The purpose of this is to enable it to both provide law enforcement and fire response and continue to support the organizations that operate at the site.
The longer-term vision that DeMasi expressed to Morgantown magazine in 2019—the Ramada as a one-stop shop where people could get help obtaining birth certificates, social security cards, and other identification, applying for disability and SNAP food subsidies, and meeting other hurdles to re-establishing stable employment and housing—remains in place. “We don’t have all of those ducks lined up because we have to get the anchor tenants in and get that all resolved,” O’Neil says. “But if you go five years down the road, that would be a great vision.”
This facility is going to be great for people in need, but it’s also good for all of us, DeMasi says. A seamless service delivery system will get help quickly to people who are struggling and help them back to stable situations that strengthen the fabric of our community.
This is a sudden and hopeful development for organizations that have weathered a year of incredible strain on their resources. And it’s a positive disruption in the social services network that’s built up over decades—it’s going to vastly improve service delivery but, while it’s getting in place, organizations are going to have some additional costs. Expect to see fundraisers ahead that will give the community big bang for the buck.