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Prison protest: Hazelwood residents voice concerns about prison conversion

fr pathwaysWith the lease drawn up and fundraising underway, most people attending the Haywood County Commissioner meeting last week figured that approving the lease for a trio of Christian groups to renovate the old Hazelwood prison would be a matter-of-fact agenda item. But when the public comment session opened, it became clear that all were not in favor. 

“I have stressed over it and prayed it would just go away and it didn’t,” said Wanda Brooks, a Hazelwood resident who owns Alley Kats Tavern, which is just across the street from the old prison. “I don’t think it’s good for our neighborhood. I think this is a time where Hazelwood could be revitalized, and I think it’s going to bring it right back down.”

The plans for the prison’s future include turning the defunct correctional center into a homeless shelter, soup kitchen and halfway house for people recently released from jail. Though they’re collectively calling themselves Haywood Pathways Center, each of the three arms is run by a different local organization, including Haywood Christian Emergency Shelter, The Open Door and Next Step. They hope that working together on the same campus will allow them to maximize their efforts. And, as a result, to change lives. 

Brooks applauds their intentions but has some serious misgivings about the execution. Her concerns are two-fold: first, that the center will beat down property values in an already struggling part of town and, second, that the people it attracts will drive the crime rate up. 

“Let’s put this in front of your business, and your business, and your house and everybody who wants this to go on, let’s put it in front of their house and see how they feel,” Jerry Owens, who owns a business in the neighborhood, told commissioners. 


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A question of timing

The commissioners acknowledged the concerns but were surprised to hear such strong objections raised so late in the game. 

“This has been discussed now for several months, since actually the beginning of the year,” Commission Chairman Mark Swanger told Brooks. 

“It was a little late really because this thing has been out in the public for quite a while,” Commissioner Mark Sorrells agreed in a later interview. “There’s been a lot of momentum behind it, a lot of solid support from the town, from the sheriff’s department, lots of positive input, and so I was a little surprised that there was any issue with some opposition as late in the game as it was.”

Nick Honerkamp, director of the homeless shelter, said the first he heard of any objection was about two weeks ago when he was driving home from Houston. Two days later, he spent one-and-a-half hours meeting with Brooks. 

“Half the meeting was dealing with half their concerns that just had misinformation, and the other part was hearing what concerns they had that were legitimate and how we could minimize that,” Honerkamp said. 

Brooks said she first heard of the project when Haywood Pathways was launching its #TearDownTheseFences fundraising campaign. Brooks thought that phrase was meant literally. 

“I had at least hoped the situation would be contained,” she said. 

Honerkamp, however, said the plans call to tear down the existing fences but then to replace them with something more attractive, save at the entrance to the facility, and that that’s always been the case. He was also able to alleviate another one of Brooks’ fears, that the center would ship out-of-towners in for rehabilitation. Honerkamp said Haywood Pathways would serve only Haywood County residents. 

But, Brooks’ lawyer Jack Kersten told commissioners, that could be hard to guarantee. 

“Their [the neighborhood’s] concern is this would be a magnet for homeless all over Western North Carolina,” he said.

Brooks was also concerned about the fact that the entrance to the facility will face the residential area across the street rather than the sheriff’s office on the other side. 

“Why is the entrance to all of this, why does this happen on Hemlock Street across the street from these people’s houses?” Kersten asked. “Why can’t the entrance be oriented to the sheriff’s department?”

Honerkamp said he’s meeting with designers this week to look at those options. 

“What we committed to Ms. Brooks was we would fully hear her concerns and do anything we could to minimize those issues she has while pursuing our mission,” Honerkamp said.

Brooks is thankful she’s being heard, but she is still not happy about the fact that the project is moving ahead. 

“I think it’s going to help,” she said of the possibility of reorienting the entrance. “Do I think it’s going to solve it? No.”


Concerned about safety

Principally, Brooks and her neighbors are concerned about safety. If a center dedicated to serving homeless and recently incarcerated people springs up in the neighborhood, what will that mean for parents who want to let their kids play outside in the afternoon or leave their cars parked on the street?

“It ain’t just the thing that’s there,” Joe Albert James, who works at a car wash in the area, told commissioners. “It’s what them people’s going to be doing outside of that. 

It ain’t where they sleep at night and where they eat. It’s what they’re going to be doing somewhere else during the day.”

According to the Haywood Pathways leaders, however, the center won’t produce hundreds of people with nothing to do all day but loiter. The facility will shut down during the day, and both the homeless shelter and the halfway house will have structured programs that keep people busy while the sun’s up. At night, the campus will be secure with a hired security guard in place. 

“Anyone can come for three nights, but after that they will be signing up for a program, a personal growth plan, a case manager,” Honerkamp said of the homeless shelter’s plan. “We are here to rehabilitate lives, not just to provide a shelter at night.”

Which is all well and good, Brooks said, but what she’s most concerned about is the soup kitchen. No program sign-up is required to get a free meal, so the people who use that service could find themselves with plenty of time to get into trouble during the day. That possibility has another Hazelwood resident, a single mother of a 6-year-old girl, worried as well. 

“I feel like it would be necessary for me to basically imprison her [my daughter] in the home when they are free to roam the streets,” Stephanie Cook said. 

Perry Hines, executive director of The Open Door, doesn’t think the soup kitchen will cause those kinds of issues, however. Nearly all of the people who frequent The Open Door’s current campus at Frog Level are either homeless people who use the shelter when it operates during the winter — at its new location the shelter will stay open year-round — or are low-income people who have homes to return to, many in the Hazelwood area. Very few are homeless people who would be opting out of the shelter’s program and therefore able to loiter in the neighborhood during the daytime.  

“The number that I would anticipate using our services in Hazelwood who would not be a part of the shelter would be very minimal,” Hines said. 

In addition, he said, The Open Door staff makes an effort to enforce good community effort when dispensing its services. 

“If people don’t respect the community and we find out that they are displaying aberrant behavior and so forth and are not willing to rectify that,” Hines said, “certainly we’re prepared to say if you don’t respect the community, the services of The Open Door are not available to you.”

Sheriff Greg Christopher, who has been a proponent of the project since its inception, also attended the meeting and said that he doesn’t expect crime to be much of a byproduct in the area. For one thing, the old prison is directly adjacent to the sheriff’s office. 

“In any normal day at the sheriff’s office, I would say there’s no less than 30 patrol vehicles coming in and out of that driveway,” Christopher said. 

While the Sheriff’s Department is available to help with any law enforcement issues in the area, he said, the Waynesville Police Department has jurisdiction there and also patrols the area carefully. 

“Any need that would arise from the shelter, one phone call and an officer would be there within two minutes,” said Waynesville Lieutenant Brian Beck. “That is our average response time. I don’t see it being an extra burden on our department to keep order in that area.”

Beck also told commissioners that the location of the soup kitchen doesn’t necessarily coincide with the location of homeless people’s camps. They used to all hang out at Frog Level, he said, even before The Open Door moved there, but now the camps have shifted along Richland Creek to behind Walmart. 

“A lot of our people have left the Frog Level area, even though that is where the soup kitchen is at now,” Beck said. “I don’t know why.”


A boon or a boondoggle? 

Security is only part of the neighborhood’s concern, though, Brooks said. She’s also worried that the center will damage property values that residents have long hoped to see shoot back up. Brooks often gets musical acts into her bar and relates the story of one musician looking across the street and saying, “If that goes in, you might as well close your doors.”

“People have held onto these properties in hopes of getting some values and being able to sell and get out of there, and they don’t think it’s going to happen now,” Brooks said. 

Honerkamp, however, doesn’t see it that way. 

“The neighborhood is already across from the sheriff’s department and the detention center and the recycling center and the old prison,” he said. “We believe that cleaning up the prison will definitely take away an eyesore from the community.”

“My prayer would be that it would revitalize the area and actually be a boon to the whole community,” Hines said, “not only in dollars and cents financially, but be a boon in terms of the enthusiasm of the community knowing that there’s something positive and productive in people’s lives.”

Sure, said Brooks, but couldn’t the community wait for someone different to be the one removing that eyesore?

“It was hard before because it was in Hazelwood,” Brooks said of her business. “It’s going to be even harder now. I feel like if the commissioners had just held off a little while we would see that revitalization. An investor could have come in there and bought that.” 

Not that anyone is lining up. Commissioners and Haywood Pathways leaders have been talking about the project for months, and there hasn’t been much but glowing enthusiasm from the community. But, Brooks’ lawyer said, that’s not the case in Hazelwood. 


Community relations

“My client talked to over 70 neighbors today,” Kersten said. “Almost none knew anything about this. If there’s this concerted effort to involve the neighborhood and make certain they’re along for this ride and they’re all for it, why didn’t someone take the time and trouble to think, ‘Gee, do these folks who live across the street want this to happen?”

Back in February, the Smoky Mountain News did just that, visiting the neighborhood to talk to people about their thoughts on the project. Close to a dozen people were interviewed, and many of those were aware of the plans. Reactions were mixed, varying from full-fledged support to trepidation. 

Though Haywood Pathways did no canvassing itself, Honerkamp said, the group felt that the plans were well enough in the public eye that any major objection would have come to light. 

“We felt like this was no secret to anyone and if there was concerns, they would be addressed before now,” Honerkamp said. 

Though Brooks acknowledged that, in fact, many people in the neighborhood were aware of the plans, she pointed out that a decision to come forward with objections isn’t so easy. 

“I would say more than anything it’s the fear of the backlash of going against the church and the sheriff,” Brooks said. “Not that I think the sheriff would come after me because he’s good. He means to do good. They all do. But would they want it in their front yard?”

Despite objections from the Hazelwood residents, commissioners voted unanimously to approve the lease, which gives the groups use of the property for $1 per year for 20 years. The reason, Sorrells said, was that the process was at its end and he didn’t hear any concerns from the public that residents, the sheriff’s office and Haywood Pathways couldn’t work out between them. 

However, commissioners will be keeping an eye on the progress and its effect on the community. 

“If a year from now you see problems are not being addressed, come back and talk to us,” Swanger told the audience. “At this point in this process, I think that’s as fair a resolution as we can have.”



A timeline of the prison plans

• 2011 – The minimum-security state prison in Hazelwood closes. 

• 2012 – Haywood County purchases the prison from the state for $1. It is never converted for another use. 

• January 2014 – Leaders of the Haywood Christian Emergency Shelter, Next Step and The Open Door present to commissioners their proposal to convert the prison into a homeless shelter, halfway house and soup kitchen. Commissioners later expressed support for the project. 

• March 2014 – The groups host community meetings to get input as to what the prison and its programs might look like once converted and to drum up interest in making those plans reality. 

• May 2014 – The groups begin work to raise the $300,000 needed. 

• June 2014 – The groups, now under the name Haywood Pathways Center, enter an online voting contest to win $50,000 and help from Ty Pennington of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition in completing the project. Haywood Pathways is at the top of the pack. 

• July 2014 – The lease approval is placed on the Haywood County Commissioners’ agenda. A group of Hazelwood residents unhappy with the plans attend the meeting’s public comment period. Commissioners vote unanimously to approve the 20-year, $1 per year lease.

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