“We’re going to tear down the fences, and we’re going to create a project and a place where we do not imprison but we empower people,” said Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown during the opening ceremony. “And we allow them to become a part of our community.”
The said he mayor didn’t believe the project was possible when he first heard about it, but became encouraged when he saw the overwhelming support from the community. Brown said he believed the project would succeed because it was a faith-based community operation.
“It was your charities and your communities that took hold of this project and ran with it,” he said.
Brown read a proclamation declaring Thursday, Sept. 25, 2014, as Guaranteed Rate/Ty Pennington Day in recognition of the support and dedication of those organizations and individuals whose actions prove that working together the community can solve social problems in an innovative and creative way.
The mayor then presented Pennington and Bob Armour, chief marking officer of Guaranteed Rate, keys to the town of Waynesville, emphasizing that the keys were symbolic because the Waynesville’s doors are never locked.
“You have opened the doors to our future,” Brown said. “You have provided a pathway to what Waynesville and Haywood County can be.”
Pennington was grateful and enthusiastic for the opportunity to work on the project.
“Seeing the vision of what this place could be, it’s going to be remarkable,” he said. “I can’t wait to see and hear the stories about the lives that are changed with this place and how it’s going to grow from today.”
Armour stepped up and expressed his gratitude for Brown’s symbolic key to the town and the chance to financially back a project that also held with the Guaranteed Rate’s values.
“What you are doing to take people from homelessness to home ownership is a noble mission,” he said. “As a mortgage company that is lending money to people to own homes, it really fits with what we’re all about and what we’re trying to do at the company.”
Armour talked about the Ultimate Neighborhood Giveback Challenge. There were a total of 322 entries from 49 different states, giving Haywood County a .3 percent chance of winning.
“You all have something huge to be proud of,” said Armour.
He then presented a giant check for $50,000 those on stage and congratulated them on their accomplishments.
Perry Hines, director of The Open Door, acknowledged the combined efforts of numerous individuals, entities and organizations, and expressed his desire for the project to set an example for the rest of the country.
“You provided the necessary fuel to douse an already fired up community,” he said, “that set a brilliant blaze for not only our community to see, but to set a model for other communities to take careful inventory of their undeveloped resources and use them to transform their communities.”
At the close of the ceremony, Pennington — known shouting “Driver, move that bus!” on the show “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” — punched the air and shouted, “Let’s flip a prison!”
Planning for the future
Pennington sat down with Sheriff Greg Christopher after the opening ceremony and talked about the project and his experience in Haywood County so far. He lauded Waynesville for being an open, welcoming community and said he got the sense that the people look out for one another.
“It’s not only a beautiful setting, but you guys are all beautiful people who care about making sure everyone is taken care of in the community,” Pennington said. “You guys are all blessed to live in a community like that because that doesn’t happen in every county. Haywood’s on the right path.”
Pennington said when he first heard about the project, he expected to walk into a prison like Alcatraz and wondered how he would be able to turn it into something warm and inviting. He also seemed excited about contributing to a project that would give people a hand up instead of a hand out.
“It’s caring about the individuals and making sure they have the kind of structure and community reinforcement of trying to stay on the right path,” Pennington said. “We all go through our highs and lows, and when you’re at the lowest, are there people around you in the community to help you pick yourself back up? Because nobody wants a handout. Everybody just wants a chance to prove themselves again. And I think that’s what this place is about.”
Christopher agreed. The issue of recidivism is what inspired the sheriff’s idea to turn the old Hazelwood prison into something that could help people.
“I reiterate to the inmates every Sunday that they are not meant to be wearing an orange jumpsuit for the rest of their lives,” he said of the day he sets aside to worship with them in jail. “That’s not the reason they were put here. That’s not their destiny. Their destiny is to be productive citizens taking care of their families and get a job and doing things to help other people. That’s what we’re here for.”
Pennington said that the volunteers would first work on the bathroom area and in completing the build. Since the infrastructure is already in place, the main focus will be to take away the prison environment and turn the building into a warm, nurturing place. “The challenge will be turning something that was a cold place into a warm environment,” said Pennington. “And you do so through texture, color and TLC.”
Pennington encouraged the community to return and volunteer after he leaves.
“It takes more than just hammering a nail,” he said. “It’s not a one-day thing.”