But where will they put all these people?

by Jordan Green

James Davis (left) and Ronnie Baldwin, guests at the Coliseum Inn, had wrapped up a day at a construction site on a recent Thursday afternoon. Greensboro officials pledged to help guests and residents with moving costs, back utilities and deposits if the city purchases and demolishes the High Point Road landmark. (photo by Jesse Kiser)

Like an unwanted sibling the Coliseum Inn has become almost as much a landmark on High Point Road as its namesake the Greensboro Coliseum, the hulking venue that has hosted everything from Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling matches and Grateful Dead concerts of years past to next month’s Central Carolina Fair.

The hotel’s spartan L-shaped complex of two-story barracks framing an asphalt parking lot is as striking as the familial greetings exchanged by its guests — some long-term, some intermittent, almost all of them riding out one skid or another. City leaders have made no secret of their desire to bring in a tonier establishment to augment its prized entertainment complex, and in late July city representatives met with owner Khan A. Khan to discuss a possible transaction.

Whether the city council, which met in closed session on Aug. 4 to discuss acquisition of the property, would elect to resell the site to a restaurateur or retailer, or to keep it as part of an expansion of the coliseum is not known because they aren’t saying, but no one thinks the city has any interest in managing a hotel for its poorest residents.

“Some people don’t have another place to stay,” said 29-year-old Benny Quick, as he leaned against the railing of the hotel’s extended-stay suite, his shirtless frame revealing the cursive script “Still I Rise” tattooed on his right breast. Quick said he and his girlfriend don’t like to stay with her parents because it means sacrificing privacy. Sometimes they stay with high-school friends — whoever’s willing to share a spare couch and food — and when they have some money they spring for a room at the Coliseum Inn.

‘Desmon Hines, age 7, is among the children who have stayed at the Coliseum Inn.

“We can expect an immediate increase in homelessness in Greensboro if the Coliseum Inn closes with no plan in place to house its residents; and that includes homeless families with young children,” said Cara Michele Forrest, an advocate (and a friend of this writer) who has befriended many of the city’s poorest residents through a mobile outreach program called Nightwatch, in which volunteers distribute food, toiletries and blankets under highway overpasses and in parking lots where homeless people congregate. “I hope the city is planning ahead. But where will they put all those people?”

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, the hotel’s 126 rooms were fully booked.

In a recent post on the blog, Chosen Fast, Forrest described the guests and residents at the Coliseum Inn as “the unemployed, underemployed, day laborers, disabled people, addicts, prostitutes. Living in the hotel when they have money and on the street when they don’t.”

What Quick characterizes as a “low-class life” at the Coliseum Inn is reflected in the Greensboro Police Department’s record of calls for service: 353 in the past 12 months — or almost one a day — including dozens each for disorderly conduct, narcotics violations and trespassing. In comparison, calls to the police from other area hotels during the same period ranged from 19 at Park Lane Hotel at Four Seasons to 131 at the Ramada, mainly for vehicle burglaries.

Notwithstanding the burden on law enforcement and the personal chaos that begets its intervention, the guests and residents have established a community of sorts at the Coliseum Inn. Quick described how a friend showed up one day with some meat and bread, and Quick fixed breakfast. Then, when they discovered some children were about to go hungry, they turned the meal over to the family. Cigarettes are shared. Prostitutes receive hospitality, whether in exchange for their services or free of obligation it’s unclear.

“People who live here, everybody’s got a problem — a disease, a mental problem,” Quick said. “It might be a little ho walking up the street somebody might know her. Somebody here might know she’s been out here for three or four days doing something she doesn’t want to do because she’s got a mental problem. He might say, ‘Come on in and sleep some, you’ve been out there in the cold for three days.’”

Mayor Yvonne Johnson said the city should bring the United Way and other agencies together to develop a plan to comprehensively address the residents problems.

“We certainly don’t want the displacement to be something that’s horrible,” she said. “I learned from the redevelopment of East Market Street as a child that you need to have a plan for misplacing and displacing people, and it needs to be comprehensive and holistic. So I would certainly be in favor of that. We really need to have a plan, and not put people out and have more problems.”

Housing and Community Development Director Andy Scott said the city’s relocation policy obliges it to provide transitional assistance to any permanent residents who are displaced when the city buys property, but the policy does not currently cover transients.

“Should the city get into a situation where transients need to be relocated, we’ll look at that policy and make any adjustments we need to, to help those people find a place to live,” Scott said. “It will entail working with the Housing Authority, working with some of the other providers, and then to make some financial assistance availabel to help people with moving costs, with the first month’s rent and with utility back payments.

“My guess is that if we come up and buy a property like that, we would put that in our contract,” he continued. “We might purchase it but we wouldn’t tear it down until we had satisfactorily addressed the needs of the people.”

Though homeless and poor people make up one of the most visible populations along the urban strip of West Lee Street and High Point Road from Eugene Street west to Interstate 40, only one of 24 members of the citizen committee for the High Point Road/West Lee Street Corridor Plan could be considered their representative: the Rev. Mike Aiken, executive director of Greensboro Urban Ministry.

A wide array of institutions have staked a claim in the hoped-for revitalization of the strip: the city-owned Greensboro Coliseum, represented by two members of the War Memorial Commission; UNCG and Greensboro College, with one representative each; Koury Corp., the preeminent developer in southeast Greensboro, with two representatives; Industries of the Blind and the Four Seasons Town Centre, with one representative each; and representatives from seven neighborhoods adjoining the corridor. Jones Elementary and Immanuel Baptist Church also have representatives on the committee.

A draft concept of the High Point Road/West Lee Street Redevelopment Plan presented by consultant Randall Gross last November envisions the Coliseum Inn being replaced by a one-story retail store or restaurant, with enough parking for a hundred cars. The draft also calls for an indoor regional recreation center on the site of the shuttered Canada Dry bottling plant, another property under consideration for purchase by the city.

The draft document calls for “destination entertainment centers,” and for stores to provision sports and recreation equipment, and home and contracting supplies. Among the hurdles identified by Gross as hindering the development of more desirable retail and entertainment properties are “competition, income base” and “safety/perceptions.”

Charles Coffey, the plant machinist at Industries of the Blind and member of the citizen committee, named the Coliseum Inn, the Canada Dry building, and a lot owned by the Mateer family, who operate a trailer storage lot on West Lee Street, as three parcels whose fate is critical to the success of any plans to revitalize the area around the coliseum.

“The three properties that need to change hands for things to get going are Canada Dry, the Coliseum Inn and the Mateer property,” Coffey said. “I think we have problems with the owners wanting more than the market value. UNCG and the city Greensboro cannot pay more than the market value.”

Coliseum Inn owner Khan A. Khan, who also owns the Greensboro Inn located on the north end of downtown and the Fairview Inn near Piedmont Triad International Airport, said he was happy to entertain an offer from the city for his High Point Road property. Any proceeds would be invested in the hotel near the airport, where Khan anticipates that the opening of FedEx and HondaJet will punch up an already brisk hospitality business.

“Business is good,” he said.

Khan said he has explored the possibility of working with Howard Johnson hotels to replace the Coliseum Inn with higher-quality accommodations, but has been reluctant to take an investment risk lest the surrounding blight undermine his enterprise.

“If the city has some better plan, we are glad so they can buy the place,” Khan said. “The bank has already given us a loan, but we cannot only change this one. You have Canada Dry sitting vacant across the street. Just like you cannot build a million-dollar home in an area with two-hundred-thousand dollar homes.”

The city has recently reopened negotiations with Market Properties of Greensboro, owned in part by the wife of News & Record Editor John Robinson, to explore the possibility of buying the Canada Dry Property.

“Based on the fact that it is a contiguous property, the War Memorial Commission has long recommended that the Canada Dry property would be a candidate for expansion for the city,” said developer Jim Galyon Jr., who serves on the commission. “It would provide us an opportunity for exhibit space, parking, any type of expansion. And quite frankly, the development of that property would help revitalize that section of High Point Road.”

The committee plans to present its plan to the city council in a briefing on Aug. 26. The current plan emphasizes compact, higher density development, making the street more pedestrian friendly, reducing heavy industrial zoning and perhaps beautifying the street with landscaped medians. As for people in the income bracket of the Coliseum Inn community, the plan calls for a reduction of loitering in the public by establishing a day center for the homeless and day-labor centers in the nearby Patterson Street area.

“They’re in the works to try to end homelessness,” said Amos Faucette Sr., a retired insurance agent who serves on the committee. “That’s the only thing that’s been discussed.” He demurred when asked to give his opinion about how the homeless people, day laborers and hotel residents should figure into the future of the street.

Whatever the city, its major institutional brokers and private developers do, Benny Quick indicated that the poor will keep trying to survive.

“That’s how we live: We try to make it every day,” he said. “It’s a dirty world, but it still spins. We can’t do nothing but try to live in it.”

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