A group of advocates for the homeless wants to turn a beleaguered loft development into a mecca of services and shelter for Lexington's homeless population.
The Lorillard Lofts on Price Road near the Lexington Cemetery is now half-filled with residents. The 10-acre property features a renovated space of 45 lofts and several undeveloped warehouses. Ginny Ramsey, director of the Catholic Action Center and the Community Inn, is leading the charge to move those two shelters to one of the warehouses, creating a 24-hour a day homeless shelter, while the developed structure would be converted into offices for advocates of housing, mental health and veterans affairs. Because the property is tucked behind both the railroad and the Leestown Road overpass, it doesn't touch residential neighborhoods.
Ramsey says the most exciting part of what she's dubbed the "Wayfinder Center" plan would be to turn the top floor of the lofts into a concept known as "respite care," in which a healthcare provider would care for people who have been discharged from the hospital but aren't well enough to go to a shelter and have nowhere else to go.
"This could really be a shining star for Lexington," Ramsey said. "I think the Wayfinder has the potential to be a national model of how to compassionately address homeless issues."
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Those issues were the subject of a task force appointed by Mayor Jim Gray, convened, in part, because of concerns about the Community Inn, and how to best help Lexington's homeless population. The task force took a broader approach than Ramsey has, but embraced ideas such as more affordable housing and better collaboration between services.
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Now, Ramsey says she has the answer to problems both general and specific with a centralized location for the needy and those who want to help. The problem, of course, is money. Although Ramsey's umbrella board, Divine Providence Way, has a letter of intent to buy the Lorillard property, it will cost nearly $5 million to buy the property and an additional $1.6 million to rehab the warehouse.
Last Wednesday, the city declined to provide that money.
Chief Administrative Officer Sally Hamilton said first of all, the city can't disperse large sums without council approval, and moreover, the plan is not yet developed enough to get full city support.
The plan "would require more due diligence, planning and commitment — including firm financial support — from the additional organizations you suggested might be interested in locating at the facility," Hamilton wrote. Although Ramsey's group has met with officials at University of Kentucky HealthCare and St. Joseph Healthcare, no major "anchor" tenant for providing such services has signed on.
Hamilton also noted that in the wake of a recent task force on homeless issues, the city has put aside $150,000 to create an Office of Homeless Prevention and Intervention to coordinate these issues in a more comprehensive way.
"I can't say I'm surprised," Ramsey said of the city's decision. "I think we'll keep talking, but we had to ask and give them an opportunity."
Both Ramsey and Tom Jameson, chairman of the Divine Providence Way board, appear undeterred by the city's letter and expect they will be able to raise some money from private sources.
"Usually these things don't get started until someone says no," Jameson said. "Still, the city has a responsibility — if they can give money for Rupp Arena and 21c, then why is there no money for this issue, which everyone wants to be solved?"
City officials said the two city projects — a $300 million renovation of Rupp Arena and the luxury boutique hotel 21c, which will be in the old First National Building, are economic development projects. (The $40 million 21c project is being privately financed, but the city has sponsored a $6 million low-interest loan available from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development using the city's future Community Development Block Grant funding as collateral.)
"The economic impact of our investment in the Rupp District will be long-lasting, ultimately providing additional resources to meet the diverse needs of our community, including helping those who are homeless," said spokeswoman Susan Straub.
As both supporters and critics of Ramsey will say, she is indefatigable in pursuit of her goals to help Lexington's homeless with shelter and food. She's been director of the Catholic Action Center on Fifth and Chestnut Streets for the past 14 years, and she started an overnight shelter at the Community Inn on Winchester Road in 2011. After neighbors complained and the city found zoning violations, Divine Providence filed a lawsuit against the city and a fair housing complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The Community Inn has stayed open as the issue has remained mired in legal wrangling. But Ramsey said the struggles had made it clear that the city didn't want either Catholic Action Center or the Community Inn in or near residential areas. The city offered up about 60 sites, but none of them were appropriate, Ramsey said. A brainstorming session led her to Lorillard Lofts.
"It's a little bit off the beaten track," Ramsey said of Lorillard, "but it would be a place they're accepted." Lexington's homeless population is "looking for dignity," she said.
Striking a deal
Lorillard Lofts was the brainchild of developer Rob McGoodwin, who saw potential in defunct tobacco warehouses around Lexington.
The main Lorillard building was a tobacco processing plant near the railroad, surrounded by warehouses.
The building opened with 45 lofts in 2006, but in 2008, the financial crisis hit amid a glut of new downtown housing. McGoodwin's property ended up in the hands of the Old National Bank of Evansville, Ind., although his company, Lexington Lofts, retains the titles to the unsold lofts.
In the arrangement, McGoodwin did not file for bankruptcy, and the bank did not foreclose on the property. Instead, the court appointed Mark Rubin of the Urban Group as a receiver, and he now manages the property for the bank and homeowners' association, selling and leasing units while waiting for the economy to improve.
Jameson is working on the real estate side of the deal. He has met with the homeowners at Lorillard, and he said that of the 14 to 16 owners, 12 have agreed to sell.
That might be because Divine Providence is offering a good deal: Jameson said they would buy the lofts for what the owners originally paid, despite the fact that most of the lofts have lost up to 30 percent of their value.
That's why owner Tom Bohannon agreed to the deal. He now lives in Dallas and leases his loft, which he said has lost half of its assessed value.
"I'm totally in favor of it," he said. "They're offering to make me whole on the deal. I hope it works out great for the homeless project, but for me it's a business transaction I would love to get closed."
Ramsey, Jameson and others have been talking to service providers around Lexington, including UK HealthCare and St. Joseph's, about the plan.
David Christiansen, director of the Central Kentucky Housing and Homeless Initiative, said his group is committed to the plan.
"We work with organizations who provide direct services," he said. "This looks like an opportunity to bring a lot of folks together under one roof and have a more collaborative approach to take on these issues."
Cecil Dunn, executive director of the Hope Center, said he met with Ramsey three months ago and supports her finding a new home for Catholic Action Center and Community Inn. But he said he doubted the Hope Center would be one of the service providers at Lorillard because it offers so many services at its sprawling Loudon Avenue complex.
"We already offer those services," he said. "We believe in treatment, and we believe you have to give people a way out of their problems with an array of services."
UK spokeswoman Kristi Lopez confirmed that Ramsey had met with UK HealthCare, but there had been no further meetings.
City council at-large member Steve Kay, who chaired the city's task force on homelessness, called the Wayfinder Center a great idea, "but I don't think the city is in a position to put $5 million in at this point."
However, he said, the idea endorses the collaborative approach.
"It would be great place for a facility. It's close to downtown and transportation lines, and close to the Salvation Army," he said. "It could be good, sufficient space to do lots of things."
One constituency that Ramsey's group has not connected with yet is the Meadowthorpe Neighborhood Association.
"MNA has not yet been informed about the project but welcomes the chance to learn more and to provide feedback on the project after the provided information can be reviewed," President Bob Layton said. "It may be a promising project — we'll have to see."