Meeting draws 200 as opposition grows to proposed complex to help Lexington's homeless

bmusgrave@herald-leader.comSeptember 30, 2013 

CHRIS WARE | STAFF — Lexington Herald-Leader

Opposition to a proposal to turn Lorillard Lofts into a service center and shelter for Lexington's homeless population is growing even though the project has no funding.

The Meadowthorpe and St. Martins neighborhood associations passed resolutions in August and September opposing the proposed Wayfinder Center off Main Street and Price Road.

And a new group, The West End Alliance — a coalition of more than 100 west end neighborhood residents — was formed last week to oppose the project.

The Wayfinder proposal — unveiled in late July — calls for transforming the 10-acre Lorillard Lofts property into a 24-hour homeless shelter. Other parts of the property would be developed into office space for advocates for housing, mental health and veterans affairs. The proposal includes a health clinic and respite care for people who are discharged from a hospital but are too sick to go to a shelter.

Backers of the project say they need $6.6 million to buy and renovate the property. The group asked for the city's help but was turned down in July.

"Right now we don't know if it's going to happen," said Ginny Ramsey, who is spearheading the project. Ramsey is co-founder of the Catholic Action Center, a community agency, and the Community Inn, a shelter on Winchester Road. The Catholic Action Center and Community Inn would be moved to the Lorillard Lofts property.

The group has a letter of intent to buy the property, a former tobacco processing plant turned condo development that has fallen on hard times, but it doesn't have a contract, Ramsey said.

Urban County Councilwoman Shevawn Akers, whose district includes Lorillard Lofts, hosted a meeting Monday night at Leestown Middle School, where Ramsey and others involved in the project spoke to more than 120 residents, many of whom carried green "No WAY finders" signs.

Akers has spent much of the past two or three weeks at neighborhood meetings addressing residents' concerns. Many don't understand that the project is in its infancy and that a lot must happen before it can go forward, she said. Also, the city has not given the project its blessing, she said. Monday night's meeting was a way for residents to learn more about the project.

Shaye Rabold, a senior advisor to Mayor Jim Gray, told residents that even if funding were secured, the property would have to be rezoned, with hearings on the proposal.

"There will be plenty of opportunity for public input and feedback," she said. "The city has not committed any funds at this point."

Residents wanted to know whether there would be any restrictions on who could stay at the shelter, if sex offenders would be allowed and if people would be checked for weapons. Ramsey said people are checked for drugs and weapons at the Community Inn, but she does not turn anyone away because of a drug addiction or mental illness, although people have been banned for behavioral problems, she said.

Many residents were frustrated because they wanted more details.

"It's still very early in the process," Ramsey said. "We are trying to be as open as we can."

Robert Jefferson, president of the St. Martins Neighborhood Association, said the neighborhood voted unanimously to oppose the project at its August meeting after taking a tour of the property and hearing from Ramsey and others.

He said neighborhood residents did not want the same problems that neighbors of the Catholic Action Center on Fifth and Chestnut streets have — too many people congregating near the center.

"The people that they will not be able to assist will just congregate in that area," Jefferson said.

Scott Applegate, a member of the West End Alliance and a Meadowthorpe resident, said the Wayfinder Center was not the solution for homelessness in Lexington.

"We understand that the issue of homelessness is very complex, but the Catholic Action Center is not the right model," he said. "There are no restrictions on sobriety like there are in other programs, and they are welcome to come and go as they please. There are also no restrictions on pedophiles."

Ramsey said people at Community Inn are welcome to come and go, and the sheriff's department checks twice a week for registered sex offenders.

Ramsey and the Community Inn have been in a fight with the city over whether it may continue to operate at its Winchester Road location. The city gave Ramsey and other homeless advocates more than 60 possible locations for a homeless and services center, but almost all of the sites had problems, Ramsey said.

Lorillard Lofts seemed ideal because it is behind a railroad line and the Leestown Road overpass and does not directly border a residential neighborhood, Ramsey said. It's also close to other providers such as the Salvation Army and Hope Center.

If neighbors continue to oppose the Lorillard location, Ramsey said, she's not sure what will happen to the project.

"At this point, we don't have any other place to go," she said.

Beth Musgrave: (859) 231-3205. Twitter: @HLCityhall.

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