Can Morgantown do both?
If you’re down on your luck and hungry in Morgantown, you can find a meal downtown any day of the week. Morgantown Community Kitchen dishes up free lunches Monday through Friday at Trinity Episcopal Church, and the Salvation Army has you covered for dinner. Weekends, there’s a Sunday pancake breakfast at the First Presbyterian, Sunday lunch at St. John University Parish, and dinner both nights provided by Circle of Friends at a rotating roster of churches.
If you’re not down on your luck and hungry in Morgantown, chances are you had no idea.
This chuckwagon is part of a ragtag, interwoven network of downtown social services. In addition to meals day in and day out there’s emergency shelter at Bartlett House, a recovery community at Friendship House, free health care at Milan Puskar Health Right, a food pantry and free store at Christian Help, and more.
It’s a safety net of compassion that has grown up gradually in response to need. It works pretty well: A couple hundred people are kept fed, sober, clothed, housed, healthy, and safe every day. Many are helped back to self-sufficiency. And it has co-existed peacefully alongside everything else that goes on downtown for decades.
Over the past year, as the numbers of people carrying all of their belongings or behaving unpredictably have overshadowed shopping and dining, that safety net has started to tangle with downtown commerce. A quiet dialog among the businesses and the service organizations wasn’t improving things and, in September, the merchants’ mood shifted from tolerance to impatience.
“Every day in downtown Morgantown we see people sleeping in the doorways, on benches, right on the sidewalk,” Blue Moose cafe owner Gary Tannenbaum told City Council on September 17. “Drug deals are going on before my eyes every day on Walnut Street.”
Retro-tique vintage store owner Jillian Kelly recounted a series of incidents for Council members, starting with August 10. “I was walking to my car and I was approached and harassed by a man who was screaming and barking across the street from my shop all day.” Now she always arranges for a second person to work with her.
Our customers don’t feel safe, business owners told Council—a rare show of frustration, because to say it out loud seems to minimize the successful markets and festivals and parades that go on downtown, and the merchants would much prefer to resolve this quietly. But it’s gone on long enough that some shops have already picked up and moved. Gary Loring took his Gary’s Comics from High Street to the mall in August after 17 years, citing, in part, “junkies” and “bums.” And when Lefty’s Place pizza shop flooded in April, owners Amel Morris and Tricia Kinnie decided they’d re-open in Suncrest instead. “Customers are mostly nice,” Morris says, “so when they come out and tell you they don’t feel safe, they’re speaking for more than the ones you’re hearing it from.”
Some observers trace the beginnings of the downturn to April 2018, when Friendship House relocated its drop-in center from Willey Street to Walnut Street. That created a cluster of services on a block where a quirky mix of creative, independent retail was just starting to establish a solid foothold.
Yet, services respond to need—they don’t cause it. Speaking at that same September 17 City Council meeting, Friendship House Program Director Caitlin Sussman pointed to an emerging methamphetamine crisis that’s slamming into her organization head-on, and the rest of the social services network from there. “This is not just our clients’ issue,” Sussman said. “This is an issue for all of us.”
With that September meeting, muttered concerns became the subject of open conversation. The conflict is this: How do we square meeting the basic needs of hundreds of people in our compact little downtown with everything else we want downtown to be—that is, a place we feel good about letting our teens hang out, a county seat professionals invite their clients to proudly, an evening and weekend destination?
As it happens, a transformative proposal that’s been in the works for more than a year couldn’t be better timed.
“ramada” means shelter
Everyone was delighted with the February 2, 1975, grand opening of the Ramada Inn. “Those who attended were pleased with the lovely blue and green decor of the lavishly appointed suites and rooms,” The Dominion Post gushed, as well as “the spacious three-level lobby, the charm of the dining room, and the magnificent, third-floor ballroom which, on Sunday night, was a picture to treat the most sophisticated gourmet.” Massive flower arrangements brought WVU pride to the occasion with gold acacia, blue-gray eucalyptus, and blue iris. “And the breathtaking view from the front portico covers a wide panorama [from] the Old Kingwood Pike over rolling hills to the majestic Monongahela.” Newspaper language was a lot more flowery 40 years ago.
The four-story hotel and conference center hosted business meetings, graduation parties, and wedding receptions for decades— any longtime Morgantown resident recalls an event. Political victory speeches rang out from its ballroom, because Alan Mollohan, U.S. congressman from this district from 1983 to 2011, co-owned the property with his sister and brother. Their father, Congressman Robert Mollohan, celebrated there before his son.
But entering its fifth decade, the hotel hadn’t kept up with the times. It owed back taxes. The Mollohans closed it in June 2017 and, a year later, they auctioned it off.
Morgantown developer Mark Nesselroad and Hazel Ruby McQuain Charitable Trust Trustee Stephen Farmer saw in the abandoned hotel the fulfillment of a vision they’d had for a while. Their vision was unveiled before representatives of more than a dozen social service organizations at a February 2019 community meeting in City Council chambers. The idea, the organizations learned, was to remake the building into a hub for any social service organizations that felt a large, airy facility 10 minutes’ drive south of downtown could help them better meet their missions.
The building is 110,000 square feet in good condition on about 10 acres, with a large parking lot, they were told. It has 149 guest rooms, a big industrial kitchen, and conference space that could be divided to suit multiple operations. WVU Medicine, which received the property from Nesselroad and the McQuain Trust as interim owner, would facilitate next steps.
The organizations’ initial reactions were possibly more skeptical than open. The proposal seemed to come out of nowhere. The Ramada Inn is remote, most said. How would people get out there?
Disentangling the fabric
In the seven months since the Ramada concept was first publicly proposed, the organizations have had time to think and discuss and imagine. Some are interested. All have important questions about how to disentangle a safety net that’s become woven and interwoven into the fabric of downtown over decades. Which organizations and what mix of services can sensibly be pulled away from downtown? How would transportation be accomplished?
Bartlett Housing Solutions Executive Director Keri DeMasi was impressed when she toured the space. “I’ve been to the Ramada a million times, obviously in a different capacity, but I don’t know that I ever realized how grand a space it really is,” she says.
DeMasi brings nuance to the idea of siting her organization’s emergency shelter there. She and her board are not interested in turning a hotel into a megashelter. “Building a bigger homeless shelter doesn’t address homelessness,” she says. What does get her excited is the potential for streamlining case management to get people housed more efficiently. She envisions a one-stop shop for the services her staff now coordinate at far-flung locations for people every day. “If there were a place to get an ID there, a DMV kiosk, if you could apply for disability and SNAP food benefits and Section 8 housing subsidies, if there were a satellite office there where one day a week the Fairmont–Morgantown Housing Authority would come in and do an orientation as opposed to people having to take a bus to Fairmont for that—that’s very appealing.”
Milan Puskar Health Right Executive Director Laura Jones is keeping an open mind. “I can imagine that we would want to provide service up there,” she says of both Health Right and, separately, Friendship House, which is a Health Right program. “Of our 3,000 active patients that Health Right sees for primary care, only a small number are homeless, so it might be easier to take care to them”—that is, to offer a small clinic at the Ramada if the emergency shelter moved there. It might make more sense for Friendship House to move, she says, but again, “People from the shelter are only about a quarter of the people who come to Friendship House. If the people who are living on the street remain downtown, it’s a harder sell for us to move the whole program up there.” Further, she points out, if Bartlett House moves to the Ramada but continues to lock its doors from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., people staying there may gravitate downtown to fill their days anyway.
How would people get to and from the Ramada Inn? Mountain Line buses currently leave Westover for Scott Avenue, where the Ramada Inn is, hourly 8 a.m. through 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. WVU Medicine is in communication with Mountain Line about what it would cost to run buses more often or later into the evening, according to Ron Justice, a WVU spokesman for the project. It’s also in discussions, Justice says, about van transport for people who rely on mobility aids like wheelchairs or scooters. The transportation question is not resolved, but it sits at the forefront of planning.
On the subject of transportation, DeMasi makes a point related to the larger discussions about the downtown environment and about getting people housed: If we want people of limited means to be able to make lives apart from downtown, we have to provide better public transportation, period. “We have a system that runs Monday through Friday, 9 to 5, with some exceptions,” she says. “But our folks aren’t working then—they’re working second and third shift. If they live on Goshen Road and work at Suncrest Towne Centre, for example, lack of transportation poses a challenge for sustainable employment.”
And then there’s the chuckwagon. For DeMasi and her board, the shelter can’t move unless meal services move, too. “We’re not a feeding program, and our clientele depends on access to feeding programs,” she says.
Feeding people is one of the main appeals of the property—that big industrial kitchen inspires the vision that, rather than having multiple organizations hauling into and out of multiple kitchens and seeking funding from the same limited sources year after year, efficiencies could be realized.
But again, it circles back to transportation.
“We have the kind of clientele sometimes that it would be difficult for them to show a card to ride a bus, or remember that they have a card, or hold on to it without losing it,” says Kathy Powell of Morgantown Community Kitchen. That group has provided weekday lunches downtown for 35 years, about 100 a day this past summer. “That doesn’t mean we’re totally against the project. I could see where it could really benefit the community.”
Jodi Grunau with Circle of Friends, which marshals a massive network of volunteers to supply weekend dinners at downtown churches for 60 to 80 on average, isn’t sure all of the meals services should move. “I don’t think we can abandon downtown,” she says. “I know folks who are not necessarily homeless, older folks who’ve been coming to Circle of Friends for 15 or 20 years. It’s their source of camaraderie,” she says. “The Ramada Inn would give groups more room and put everybody in one place and connected, and that would be amazing. But to totally remove meals from downtown would be devastating.”
One further important consideration: real estate. Christian Help, which manages a massive flow of donated items as a free store and also offers utility bill and other vouchers for families in need, owns its building on Walnut Street. “Christian Help will partner on appropriate services, perhaps be present part-time on-site,” Executive Director Colleen Lankford says of the Ramada Inn proposal. “But, as property owners, we won’t relocate our operations elsewhere.” Other organizations owning their buildings include Bartlett House, Health Right, and the Salvation Army. Friendship House rents. Leaving an equity situation to take on a lease is a major consideration for any organization.
All of this is surmountable once the community arrives at a shared mission, says City Councilman Ron Dulaney, who’s taken a deep interest in the downtown environment—and it needs to be a mission that goes beyond “cleaning up the downtown” to address chronic homelessness, addiction, mental health, and law enforcement issues. “If we can agree to a mission, and the Ramada is applied in the service of that mission, I think people will recognize the potential of the Ramada site as a vital resource in solving this problem.”
it will take a village
Something does need to be done to relieve the need that’s openly visible on the streets downtown. “I’ve been a social worker for 32 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” says Health Right’s Jones. “This is probably the hardest work we’ve ever done, harm reduction and recovery services.” 123 Pleasant Street owner and Main Street Morgantown Acting Board President L.J. Giuliani told Council on September 17 that downtown business owners agree it’s time to act. “If we don’t, we’re just going to get farther and farther behind.”
At the Ramada, WVU Medicine is bringing the plumbing, electricity, heating and cooling, and sprinkler systems up to date and making sure the kitchen equipment is in good working order, WVU’s Justice says. It plans to have that done by the end of 2019.
Then, if there’s a set of social service organizations that are interested in moving there, WVU Medicine will transfer ownership to a nonprofit organization that would be governed by the resident organizations themselves. Build-out of the space each organization would take over is yet to be figured out; after that, the resident organizations would not pay rent but would pay a rate, likely in the range of $4 to $6 per square foot, for maintenance, utilities, and services like security and snow plowing—think homeowners association.
But what’s happening downtown is not one problem and it’s not going to be resolved through one solution, even one as big as a whole Ramada Inn. “It’s not just people who are using drugs, it’s not just housing, it’s not just health care—it’s a very complex issue,” Jones says. Some other ideas are in play that could be part of the overall solution. Some could relieve pressure sooner than the big Ramada project, and all would require resources.
- A bouncer at Friendship House This was mentioned at the September 17 City Council meeting. “That’s not a bad idea—we don’t have someone who waits at the door and determines who comes in and what they’re carrying,” Jones says. “But we don’t have the funding to do that right now.” So funding from somewhere for a private security position could help.
- A more visible enforcement presence Many businesses downtown have asked for this. There is supposed to be an officer on foot downtown—“from the Sheetz to the Panera,” Chief Ed Preston says, “two of them from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. in overlapping shifts, 5,000 man-hours a year”—but most people feel like they never see them. So maybe it takes more than two. Preston also reminds us that the police can’t arrest people for loitering. They can’t arrest people for misdemeanors that aren’t committed in their presence, either. If there’s video evidence of, say, disorderly conduct, they may be able to get a warrant, and that could take hours or days.
- A public intoxication shelter Police also don’t arrest people for public drunkenness—the West Virginia Supreme Court has ruled that a person who is an alcoholic is automatically not guilty of public intoxication by reason of disease. What the police could do, if they had the facility, is hold them in a medically supervised intoxication shelter. “We need one desperately,” Preston says. He estimates that the police would remove more than 20 people a day from the streets if they had a place for them, and he believes it would be a powerful deterrent. This, again, requires funding.
- More treatment beds Jones recounts a recent incident in which a drug user Health Right had worked with for years finally decided to get clean. He went to detox but, when he came out, there was no recovery bed available—so he went back on the street and started using again. “When someone’s ready, you have to strike,” she says. “You can’t push them out and say, ‘Fend for yourself out there until we’re ready for you.’”
- Low-income housing “Not middle-low-income housing, but low-income housing,” Jones says—housing that accepts federal Section 8 housing assistance. “Scattered-site housing where people can live among other people who have resources.”
Any organizations that do decide to move up to the Ramada Inn are going to need support to do it. Even those that own their buildings downtown may conduct capital campaigns for their build-outs, for example, because they’d need to keep offering services where they are until the new space is ready. They’re going to need extra volunteer time to help them move and set up their new spaces. And they’re going to need us to continue supporting them as we have—to not put them out of sight, out of mind.
No matter what mix of solutions is pursued, the September 17 City Council meeting seems to have catalyzed frank and realistic communication among the businesses, the social service organizations, and city administration. The city has set a special meeting for October 11 to assess its resources and responsibilities and create a work plan toward a multifaceted, long-term solution. That move was welcomed by the Walnut Street merchants, and Lankford, at Christian Help, is optimistic. “We have the resources, skills, and expertise in the community,” she said following a productive Main Street Morgantown meeting in September. “I’m hopeful the discussion is underway.”