This is a very controversial topic in the second district. Mark and I are having a public meeting at 4:00 today at the Panera Bread on Broadway in Fountain City. Although this is incredibly short notice, please drop by if you can.
Also, I posted an invitation to our constituents on our neighborhood listserves to share their thoughts on this topic - specifically, if they thought putting another $250,000 into this project is worth it:
Commissioner Mark Harmon and I will be meeting at the Panera Bread in Fountain City this Sunday, October 26 at 4:00pm. We will be discussing the agenda for the Commission meeting on Monday, October 27, which includes a vote on whether or not to give $250,000 in federal grant money to VMC for the Minvilla project. If you would like to join us for this discussion, please do! We would appreciate your input. You can also contact us via email or phone.
Here are the responses we have received so far - names have been deleted to protect the innocent :)
"With a total outlay of how many million dollars? Did I read $2.5M somewhere? I went on a "tour" of that building back in January? February? Sometime in there, and that building is in sad shape. Really sad. I admit, from a historic viewpoint, it's a handsome structure, but I can't believe that even without cost overruns (which, from what they have to start with, might happen), two plus million dollars is a heck of a lot of money to spend for the intended purpose. Wouldn't it really be more cost effective to take a bunch of photos for posterity, tear it down and start over? Just wondering. I'm skeptical."
"Yep, that's how we best keep our history. Too bad they didn't think of that in time for Grand Central Terminal, and then we would have that
eyesore out of the way in NYC and something more cost effective in it's place. Take photos of it for posterity and tear it down, yep, there's a
How about an alternative like getting it out of the hands of VMC and the public funds they keep getting and turning it over to a developer who will restore at market rates? I'm sure there are several other options than VMC converting it to their use and the one I mention, but demolition is not the right thing to do right there, right now."
"The problem is finding a developer to take it on -- especially with the economic realities of the current mortgage/building/credit situation. Even before all this, several developers refused to have anything to do with it -- waaaaay too little profit there. After much effort on many people's part, this was the best -- or the only -- option besides demolition. It's always easy for us to say what *somebody else* coulda shoulda done, but this is what we've got to work with, folks. "
"But who would want to live on that stretch of Broadway?"
"The same type of people who moved into ONK, 4&G, Mechanicsville, Parkridge and Morningside 30 years ago when those areas were down on
their luck after being badly used and neglected. They were told they were wasting their time and money, but they are still fighting and now unarguably winning the battle to take back Knoxville for it's residents in all parts of the city. That's who."
"Minvilla was made available to developers for at least a year before VMC's plan came along. Nobody could make the numbers work."
"I think _____ was being facetious. Given a slight bit of beautification and a slightly less (at least visible) homless problem there's no reason to think that corridor couldn't shape up nicely over the next decade. Of course, the folks who would answer 'No one' with about ten exclamation points seem to end up past. Maybe not years future.
Slightly off point, but just a few years ago we were all hearing about how a downtown cinema would TANK and be a failure beyond imagination. I was taking 2 youngsters to the movies last night and my #1 choice is the Riviera, but I chose West Town Mall to avoid the crowds. Didn't even think of the irony at the time.
"Actually, I wasn't being facetious. The "Mission District" has more panhandlers per square foot than any of the neighborhoods Chester mentioned ever had. I've talked to business owners a block or two north of 5th (and written about those conversations), and I could not live with the stuff they told me about -- petty and major vandalism, petit and grand larceny, aggressive panhandling, assaults and threats, crapping and peeing in front doors.
Seriously, I couldn't."
"I will be out of town Sunday at 4 -- but am interested in the out come of the meeting---Seems like the government 700 billion dollar bail-out situation --- damed if you do and damed if you don't---
I am not sure if I oppose the mini villa situation as much as what happens with the street loitering problems when the building across Fifth for the day programs gets finished and we find everyone hanging out on the street again--they may be building an area behind the building for resting and such but no one can make people do only what we would like to see happen====I still think if our area has to shoulder more of the burden of the homeless we should be allotted a special group of police officer's to specifically address the issues of the homeless in our part of town..."
As one of your constituents (who voted for you and was very happy about your election but have failed to congratulate you), I would like to express my support for the Minvilla project. It's true that due to ill health and family obligations, I haven't kept up with all the news on the funding for the project. From what I know, I feel that we need to use the federal monies available to further Minvilla. However I am open to hearing any opinions from the "other side" which might change my opinion.
Thank you for your work on behalf of our district."
"Amy, I will be out of town this Sunday, but I'll give you my two cents worth. I was one of the few people that were able to join Ginny Weatherstone on a tour of Minvilla a few months ago. The following information is from that tour. I also acknowledge that Ms Weatherstone seems to have different plans on different days.
Part of the problem with the Minvilla project is that the way it is set up it is not just 57 living units, which could be built anywhere. The tenants do not have free access from their apartments to the street. On the outside of the building it will be historically correct. Doors, windows, small porch and steps. However, the doors and windows do not open. Access is through a lobby on B'way, which is to be manned 24/7 by a staff person who will monitor the mailboxes, tenants and their guests, etc. There are a couple of small offices where staff can meet individually with tenants. There is a community room with small kitchen area for serving food for a party, etc.
If the actual plan for the building is followed, as was expressed by Ms. Weatherstone, it addresses my problems with the project. I could not see how anyone could monitor all those doors into units, which meant the street people could have access to their friends in the program at any time. This is solved by using the non functioning outside design and the lobby. I am sure staff would not allow other folks to "bunk in" with the people in their program.
We have heard how much money these chronic homeless people cost us in services. If they are in one program/place, which is constantly monitored, those costs should go down. I wonder what happens if someone just cannot manage to follow the rules and is terminated from the program. We don't have mental institutions where these folks can be treated/housed on a long term basis. So how is VMS going to address this problem?
One of the problems I have with the homeless population is that they commit a crime, the are apprehended, they go to jail, they are released, and they go right back to KARM, because KARM allows anyone to come in if they are sober. I think this is a big problem for neighbors. I would presume the folks in Minvilla would be supervised and anything they stole would have to be brought in through the lobby and staff would notice merchandise piling up in these small living units. So Minvilla might help out the crime rate.
VMS is a faith based organization. Have they gone to their board and their supporters for this money, or is it an automatic "hit the city up one more time" I don't know the answers to lots of questions, but if Minvilla could answer these questions we, as tax payers might be more sympathetic."
"_______, that's a very good point you make about the access issues (and, one hopes, solutions) at Minvilla. Your question about financing is good too. Here's what I can tell you about the financing: If you go to Guidestar.org, you can search "Volunteer Ministry Center" and pull up a profile of the organization with a link to their 990 (tax report) form. The latest I found was 2006, but that should give you some idea of where VMC money comes from and goes. For 2006, "direct public support" accounted for $660,888; "indirect public support" for $79,724, and "government contributions" $328,434. (Full disclosure: that "direct public support" would include some checks from yours truly -- I put my money where my mouth is). The tax form also includes a list of the Board of Directors for VMC. You will see at least one 4th/Gill resident listed. You can be sure that the people on that Board walk the talk too, and put money into the effort, and are not just coming to local government with hands out.
I think people at VMC are as concerned as you about the possibility that some clients will "flunk out" of the program. Sooner or later this country has to face the fact that some people are too sick for even this kind of supportive program, and must be in some involuntary restraining program. That is going to require both financial support for such housing, and the will to "violate civil liberties." That's my not-so-humble opinion, anyway. Meantime, we know for sure that what we've had for the past twenty years or so does NOT work (a la KARM) so I'm willing to see VMC and Minvilla give it a try."
"So what good is a derelict building? When I toured the place, a private developer had the project. Guess he backed out. If/when VMS complets this thing done, will the city get any taxes from it? I guess not since charities don't pay taxes. If a developer/contractor can't be found, what then? It just sits and deteriorates further? Still skeptical."
"I will not be able to be at the meeting, but I strongly support the idea of helping VMC with the Minvilla project. I hope the grant will be made."
"I think the street loitering problems on Broadway might actualy improve with the finishing of the new building for Volunteer Ministry Center. From my point of view, the problem lies mainly with Knox Area Rescue Mission (KARM) which has been remarkably "blind" to what is happening on their doorstep. VMC, on the other hand, sends people out hourly to clean up any trash around their Gay Street building, and would have no trouble at all telling people that a meal would not be served until the area is cleaned up. VMC is actively working to get people into supportive housing and OFF the streets -- not making it easier to stay ON the streets. We'll see, anyway."
"I think a little history is in order here.
Once upon a time, the VMC (Volunteer Ministry Center) said it would not move north of 5th Ave. Then they acquired the old KARM building located north of 5th Ave.
Next, they said the old KARM building would only need modifications to be functional for their needs, and that they would even consider making the main entrance in the rear in order to help discourage hanging out on Broadway. Well, the old KARM building has been raised and being put in its place is a larger building with the main entrance facing Broadway. (I heard these statements about the KARM building at a meeting I attended with VMC members, including Ginny Weatherstone.)
Then the VMC decided to take on Minvilla. They received $500,000 form the county commission, and then another $500,000 from city council. At the city council meeting (at which I was present) representatives from VMC said two things that are germane here: 1) They would not ask for any more public funds (at least from city council) for this project, and 2) they had no idea where they would get the money to pay for the case managers that would be required to manage the chronic homeless people they were willing to undertake. One phrase that stuck with me was "competing in the well of sorrows" for funds.
Three more pieces of related information:
1) At the meeting with the VMC concerning the old KARM building, I asked Ms Weatherstone if they had any guidelines in place to measure success? Did they keep any records? How many people did they help, who then had to come back for help again? She said they had no records or guidelines. That their information was anecdotal. Remember, this is pre-Minvilla.
2) The county commission voted not to pay its full share of the yearly funds into the city/county 10-year-chronic-homelessness plan. It cut its funding by $50,000. (See: http://www.knoxnews.com/news/2008/jun/2 ... s-program/)
3) According to today's News Sentinel, front page of the local section, County Commissioner Mike Hammond is wanting to investigate why judges are waiving fees to the tune of $150,000. He says: "'I think we need to look at them and have a better understanding of why they're (fees) are being waived. ... We're looking at a very, very tight budget this and next. And any revenue we can get without taxing our citizens, we need to collect.'" The title of the article is "Hammond questions waived fees."
It strikes me that there is a grand disconnect going on here. Money is tight, and maybe that is why Knox County Commission voted not to fund its full portion of the 10-year plan. And, yes, the $250,000 VMC wants is federal dollars, but that money is not inexhaustible either, is still public money, and there are other worthy things on which the money could be spent, other things in "the well of sorrows" or for the public good. But if county commission won't fully fund its share of the 10-year plan, what is its rational for considering this?
On top of that, VMC has already received at least of $1,000,000,000 from the county and city, and there has been little accountability. Now they want another $250,000 from the county. What's next, a similar request from the city? Past history would indicate that this, despite past promises, would be possible, if not likely.
I think it is time to halt this. I think it is time to put some real accountability into this entire process (including in the 10-year plan), and I think if the county commission is serious about this issue, it should pay its fair share of the obligations it has already entered into and stop using federal dollars as way of absolving itself from local responsibility.
In short, I say to Commissioners Harmon and Broyles, and to all the Knox County Commissioners, vote NO on this request."
"Thank you for that excellent history lesson! I agree with your conclusion. Please vote NO."
"I'm not on the board or staff at VMC, so I can't answer all of your observations and criticisms with authority. I can say what I remember from observing the process as an interested outsider. To my understanding, VMC has been under a LOT of pressure from downtown developers (and thus from city officials) to move away from Gay Street (and their facilities there are pretty badly crowded anyway). VMC did try hard to find someplace suitable on bus lines and in walking distance to move to, and were blocked at every effort. VMC was not eager to help create a "mission district," but with the KARM site there, there was pressure to use it. As with any old building (and we who live in older buildings know this), there were "surprises" as renovation efforts began. Remember that codes require far more of a more-or-less public building, with large numbers of users, than for private residences.
Knowing Ginny Weatherstone, I do trust that she said what she believed to be the facts of the situation at any given time -- but the facts of the situation kept changing, to her frustration as well as ours.
I suspect that there have also been some failures to communicate on more than one side. I know from many discussions with Ginny, over years, that her big push at VMC has been accountability, for staff and clients. She is very proud of the number of people they have gotten into supportive housing, and can tell numbers on that. One of her biggest frustrations has been the refusal of some churches and groups to use the informational/management system that will keep people from gaming the system. It would help a LOT if every agency, church, and other "loving" group in town would make it clear to their members that giving money, water, food, etc. to panhandlers and campers does NOT help, but makes it easier for such people to continue living on the streets. I want them OFF our streets and -- when appropriate -- on medication. Or when appropriate, in jail.
I do hear and understand your anger. I share it. I am what used to be called a "fiscal conservative" and lean toward a libertarian financial stance. I am no more anxious to see public funds go down a rat hole than you are. But I HAVE seen VMC make a definite change in people who used to spend the day just "hanging out" downtown -- who now have identification, a place to live, and sometimes even jobs. That is, indeed, anecdotal evidence -- but it's more than I have for some other agencies in town. I have NO hope that homelessness, "chronic" or otherwise, will ever go away. Some people are just too mentally ill, mean, or stupid to help. But right now I think VMC is doing a better job than other agencies I could name."