Early operations at the new social services hub are going well.
Although a grand opening is yet to take place for the new social services hub at the former Ramada Inn on Scott Avenue south of town, the first four tenants are in place or soon to be in place.
Bartlett Housing Solutions started operating in its new space in mid-March and has since completely closed its downtown shelter. The organization occupies the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th floors of the Ramada’s north wing and offers a 28-bed triage shelter—the preferred term for what has conventionally been called an “emergency shelter”—as well as six apartments, says Executive Director Keri DeMasi.
Food distribution and preparation are underway. The United Way of Monongalia and Preston Counties’ Helpful Harvest program receives a high volume of food there and boxes it for distribution to food pantries. And last week, the Salvation Army held a grand opening for its Hope Cafe feeding program in the commercial kitchen and dining hall, and it’s currently serving dinner.
Finally, recently completed construction will allow the planned sobering center to open soon—that’s a supervised place where law enforcement can take people who are publicly under the influence of drugs or alcohol that isn’t jail or the emergency room.
Each of these organizations has its own entrance in the 110,000-square-foot building. “That creates a lot of confidence for the staffs and volunteers of the organizations and the people they’re serving,” says Jonathan Board, interim director of property owner Morgantown Community Resources (MCR).
Several more organizations are in the process of negotiating leases and floor plans. Although their names cannot yet be announced, Board says, they’re providers of related services. “The clientele that are served here overlap so naturally,” he says. “There needed to be feeding and of course housing, but also legal and health care services and maybe crisis services. It’s a very organic set-up.”
Adequate transportation was one of the community’s primary concerns about locating a social services hub away from downtown. The plan has been for Mountain Line Transit Authority to add to its trips to Scott Avenue as services at the Ramada Inn ramp up—adding Sunday service to its previous Monday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule, for example—and to time its first and last routes around meal service at the Ramada.
Bartlett Housing Solutions gives its clients bus passes. The schedule is not a major issue for them, DeMasi says. The shelter is open 24/7, so clients aren’t under pressure to find somewhere else to be during the day. And their stays are short, because the triage staff learns their circumstances and needs, then pretty quickly directs them into less temporary housing.
The bus schedule will become more important as meal service expands from dinner only to three meals a day. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation, because Bartlett Housing Solutions’ clients do need three meals a day. There are discussions about some entity or combination of entities serving additional meals, DeMasi says. Additional bus trips to Scott Avenue are the subject of constructive ongoing dialog between Mountain Line and MCR. “As services come online out here, we’re going to see much better access,” Board says.
Oversight and synergies
Morgantown Community Resources was originally a subsidiary of WVU Health System, created to own and manage the former Ramada Inn after Mark Nesselroad and the Hazel Ruby McQuain Trust purchased it at auction in 2018 in service of the vision that’s now coming to fruition. MCR has since been split off as an independent nonprofit organization, Board says, and its board takes an active role in support of the site’s development.
“On paper, it might look like we are landlords, but it’s not just, ‘Here’s a campus, come,’ or, ‘Here’s some square footage, enjoy it,’” says Board. Rather, the board of the MCR assists tenants through problem-solving, locating sources of funding, and other support. “We buy into the mission and the vision of everyone who’s here. Often the staffs themselves are people who have already gone through some of the programs that are offered, so we feel honored to be part of that. It’s humbling and a privilege for MCR to support these various missions.”
Having just these few organizations operating in the same space has already turned up unexpected synergies, Board says—ways they can stop duplicating efforts and make their services more efficient and effective. DeMasi is looking forward to what follows. “It’s exciting to see this come together and see what the potential for this property can be as new partners come aboard and we pull resources and collaboratives together to benefit the folks in need—homeless services, food insecurity, whatever the need is.”
Client response to the space
Clients are reacting positively to the space. “This was a hotel, and it was an established, well-maintained hotel for most of its life,” says Board, who is on-site every day and interacts with as many people as he can. “So when they come here, I think they feel well-treated. There’s a level of dignity and respect that sometimes maybe isn’t fully realized in other places. Here there is an excitement, maybe a connection to a past vacation or what have you. It’s resonating really well, and I think it’s evoking strong good feelings.”
Asked when we can stop calling it “the former Ramada Inn,” Board laughed and said he expects a grand opening and the announcement of a name for the facility before July.
Here are some things we learned that aren’t related to the facility itself:
- Organizations are continuing to operate with social distancing and mask-wearing for now. Unwinding COVID restrictions is going to take planning and time. “Being a congregate living situation, I think I plan on saying that, if you can demonstrate that you’ve been vaccinated, via a card or somebody that we could confirm with at the clinics, we’ll loosen the mask restrictions for those folks,” DeMasi says. “The other folks will have to continue to wear masks when they’re not eating or sleeping.”
- Bartlett Housing Solutions’ board is considering selling its valuable downtown property. “I’m a firm believer in, any time you’re blessed enough to be able to receive an inflow of cash unexpectedly, to roll it back into your mission—figure out a way to have more impact within the community,” DeMasi says. “I think the board’s excited about exploring what that looks like and ways that we can contribute more to the community with that opportunity.”
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