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When the lights go out at the Lowrey: Short, long-term options being explored

A skylight illuminates a common space on the second floor of the Lowrey Hotel in New Richmond. Mike Longaecker / RiverTown Multimedia

NEW RICHMOND — There is little doubt time is running out on the Lowrey Hotel.

The inn, which caters to low-income renters whose struggles often involve addiction and criminal activity, is facing an Aug. 31 expiration on its lease. After that, the tenants, whose legal and financial status often create barriers to affordable housing, will be left with few options.

Lowrey owner Stacy Wright said she has worked for years to earn the trust — not just of community leaders, but also of her tenants — and is saddened to see what Sept. 1 will bring.

"Now it's just all going to be kicked to the side," she said.

The situation at the Lowrey has highlighted the issue of housing for the poor and homeless in the New Richmond area, where leaders admitted it can be a challenge.

"A lot of this is, to be blunt — and you guys know this — is it's 'not in my backyard,'" New Richmond City Administrator Mike Darrow said last month in an interview with RiverTown Multimedia. "That's what this is coming down to in a lot of ways."

But Wright, Darrow and others are hoping local efforts on more than one front may provide short- and long-term solutions for the approximately 50 people who call the Lowrey home. Darrow and New Richmond Mayor Fred Horne said the city is participating in a thoughtful approach to relocate the residents in the face of the hotel's impending closure.

"That's the reality," Horne said. "These are people. They need to be treated with dignity as well."

New Richmond and St. Croix County leaders have joined with Wright in the ad-hoc Lowrey Community Response Committee, which has been meeting since May to help arrange housing options for the tenants.

"This is not a city issue, this is a community issue," Darrow said, describing the response.

Solution-oriented

The group has been meeting about every other week in New Richmond, where officials from St. Croix County Public Health, the Salvation Army, West Cap, the New Richmond Area Chamber of Commerce and New Richmond police join city officials and Wright at the table.

While Darrow lauded the group's work as "empowering," Wright said the solutions aren't coming fast enough.

Still, developments are occurring.

At the group's July 13 meeting, it was revealed the Salvation Army's Grace Place homeless shelter is working with five Lowrey-based clients, of whom two already have housing pending; one person declined the organization's help. Two people received bus tickets and moved out of state, the Salvation Army reported.

West Cap, a Glenwood City-based organization that combats poverty issues, has met with nine families from the Lowrey, two of which have found housing. Five families didn't return calls, a reality group members said in June is difficult to overcome.

At the group's June 22 meeting, West Cap Homeless Prevention Program Manager Corin Tubridy pointed to another hurdle: Much of the emergency assistance doesn't become available until the Lowrey's deadline nearly expires — 30 to 60 days isn't deemed an emergency to those programs, she explained.

Tubridy explained at the meeting to an exasperated Wright how the process can be painstaking, but assured her it's not new territory for her organization. "This is what we deal with daily, 365 days a year," Tubridy said.

Two Lowrey residents are veterans, West Cap reported after the July meeting; they are getting options through the Veterans Affairs office. Four people have applied for public assistance housing, though West Cap noted another roadblock: Others aren't eligible for Section 8 housing because of their criminal history.

But Section 8 housing in St. Croix and Pierce counties also comes with another snarl: The first-come, first-served waiting list could be as long as two years, Tubridy told group members.

"It's a longer-term fix," she said in June.

Wright said she fears that, in spite of some tenants finding housing, those remaining at the Lowrey will be left out in the cold come Sept. 1. From there, she said "the economic trickle-down effect is going to be enormous" once those people are left to occupy public parks, sleep in cars or put a strain on other public services.

She urged community leaders at the June meeting to find contingency plans to stem those possibilities.

'We need a Plan A, B and C," Wright said in June. "And I don't know what B and C look like."

Wright Path

But while the ad-hoc group works toward short-term solutions, Wright and others are attempting to develop a longer-term fix.

Wright has drawn up plans for a brand-new housing facility that, like the Lowrey, would offer a short-term program for the homeless or near-homeless.

"But I want to do it better," she said.

She's calling the nonprofit program Wright Path, tentative plans for which call for a 40-room facility providing case management services for residents. The project has a board of directors that includes Rep. Rob Stafsholt, R-New Richmond, and New Richmond attorney Gary Bakke.

Michael Luckey, director of the Wisconsin administration department's Interagency Council on Homelessness — a group led by Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch — said Wright Path plans are encouraging.

"It's a model that could work," he said of programs that provide on-site programming for residents. "It is an effective model."

So far, the project faces two major hurdles: funding and location. Wright said estimates call for a $1.5 million to $2 million price tag, which will likely mean tapping multiple funding streams.

"The more of this that can be done privately, probably, the better," Luckey said, adding that with public grants come "a lot of red tape."

But Bakke said it's worth the effort. Fellow Wright Path board member and Wright's mutual friend Russ Utecht convinced Bakke to climb aboard, the New Richmond lawyer explained.

"It's a worthy cause," Bakke said.

Wright said the mission statement is a work in progress, but is shaping up to describe a low-cost short- or extended-stay dormitory-style facility for the less fortunate whose decisions have caused them to be homeless or near homeless.

Stafsholt, who's had rental properties, said he's had people of "similar backgrounds" as the Lowrey tenants apply for housing.

"We need to find a more permanent spot for those kinds of folks," he said.

Bakke said Wright has developed an undeserved reputation in the New Richmond community that she's part of the problem.

"I think that's misinformed," he said. "She attempts to be part of the solution. This is a society problem."

Bakke said fundraising will be vital to achieving lift-off for the project. But finding a location for the facility will be equally difficult, he said.

Bakke, who is helping navigate legal matters for Wright Path, said there is no zoning in the city to accommodate a structure of its purpose. He wondered aloud whether the city would work to accommodate zoning changes "or aggressively push it away because it's an inconvenience."

Darrow said the city is aware of Wright's intentions, but hasn't received plans to consider. That, he said, makes sizing up potential zoning issues difficult.

"Once a concept is presented, the city would provide additional insights to the developer as to zoning and development standards and specific building," Darrow said.

Stafsholt said he's more confident a deal can be struck with the city. He said Darrow and Horne "are willing to help us find the right spot."

Still, the lawmaker said securing funding for Wright Path will be an uphill push.

"I think it's going to be extremely difficult," Stafsholt said.

Another option would be locating the facility in a St. Croix County town, where Bakke said the project might be received more warmly.

After all, Bakke said, the county has turned to the Lowrey in placing some people who can't find other housing.

"At least the county has that interest," he said.

Wright said she is heartened by the commitment of those backing the project. She said every board member besides herself — a Philadelphia native — has roots in St. Croix County.

That, Wright said, tells her influential community members are taking a stand for those who have nowhere else to turn besides places like the Lowrey.

"I'm very delighted and humbled by how everyone's responded," Wright said.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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