A group planning to revamp the long-closed Hazelwood prison to serve as transitional housing and a soup kitchen was advanced Monday when Haywood County Board of Commissioners approved a lease agreement with the Haywood Christian Emergency Shelter for a complex known as the Haywood Pathways Center.
Although there are two other entities partnering with the organization — The Open Door and Next Step Ministries — the commissioners concluded they wanted a lease with one entity that would, in turn, sublease to the others.
The terms of the lease are for $1 a year for the next 20 years.
The approval was preceded by comments from several Hazelwood community members worried the project would decrease their property values and pose security risks in the residential and business area.
Waynesville attorney Jack Kersten spoke on behalf of his client Wanda Brooks, who has the Alley Kats Tavern across from the shelter complex entrance, as well as a residence nearby. He said his client and others were worried individuals using the service would congregate in the community and the crime rate would go up.
There weren’t a lot of opponents at the meeting, Kersten said, because they feared speaking up would anger the sheriff and wouldn’t do any good because those in Hazelwood aren’t wealthy or influential people.
Kersten spoke of an earlier meeting with Nick Honerkamp, who heads the shelter effort.
“We’ve been assured this will only serve the homeless of Haywood County and told anyone who doesn’t belong here will be bussed back to where they came from,” he said, but questioned how that process would work.
If the project goes forward, Kersten urged the commissioners to do what they could to set guidelines and make sure things occur the way project leaders say they hope will happen. He also asked whether a different entrance could be looked into rather than the Hemlock Street approach.
Kersten said a corner piece of property in the neighborhood recently sold for $1.4 million and asked whether the county would consider selling the former prison site and using the funds to build a homeless shelter that “is not two blocks from four bars, an ABC store and in a residential neighborhood.”
County Commission Chairman Mark Swanger said the project has been under discussion for months and expressed confidence in the leaders in the faith community spearheading the project, and noted individuals certainly had the opportunity to know about the plans far before now.
Honerkamp said the group first learned about community opposition last week, and said a dialogue has been started to address concerns.
Several Hazelwood residents spoke during the public comment session about the shelter/soup kitchen project.
“For everybody that wants this to go on, let’s put it in front of their house and see how they feel,” said Hazelwood business owner Jerry Owens. “I’ve been in business 41 years and worked as hard as I could. There is nothing fair about this.”
Joe Albert James spoke of the lack of security in the neighborhood and said drug dealings occur almost daily at business parking lots.
“It’s not here people will be eating or sleeping,” he said to the assurances the center would be an alcohol/drug free operation. “It’s what people will be doing outside. It’s not fair everyone has to keep everyone else up.”
Stephanie Cook expressed concern about her 6-year-old daughter who would have to be imprisoned in her house since she feared it would be unsafe to let her play outside.
Brooks said people would have come forward earlier, but were afraid to speak against the church and the sheriff.
“We know he is a good man,” she said of the sheriff. “But this is not good for a neighborhood. I took 70 flyers around today and all are against it, but think we’re beat. It is serious stuff and there could be a lot of theft in the area.”
She said people in the Frog Level community had to put up fences and security cameras to deal with problems caused by having the homeless population in the area waiting for the soup kitchen to open.
“Hazelwood is in a great position to be revitalized,” she said. “There is no way this will not hurt the property value of homes.”
Brian Beck with the Waynesville Police Department said there is an officer patrolling the area every shift, and the average complaint response time is 2 minutes. The placement of a soup kitchen doesn’t necessarily dictate where the homeless population stays, he said, noting many have already gravitated away from Frog Level where the homeless have long lived and toward the Walmart area.
Both he and Sheriff Greg Christopher, whose jail and administrative offices neighbor the proposed Haywood Pathways Center, pledged resources would be available to address security issues.