When Dan Rogers walks through the expansive halls of the former Macomber Vocational High School, he envisions more than a new homeless shelter with a generous amount of elbow room.
He sees an unprecedented opportunity to assimilate mainstream Toledo with the city’s homeless population through concerts, fine arts, basketball games, fitness activities, community banquets, gardening, car repairs, and dining — a chance for people from all walks of life to commingle and hopefully, to demystify poverty.
The longtime president and chief executive officer of Cherry Street Mission Ministries admittedly is dreaming big: He is about to launch into a $13 million to $14 million renovation of the 252,000-square-foot building, which Cherry Street purchased for $380,000 earlier this year. It last sold for $500,000 in 2008.
The work is to be phased in over five years, starting this fall.
Even after Cherry Street consolidates its fragmented housing, meals, and medical programs under one roof and increases its capacity to serve the homeless by 25 percent, it expects to have 40,000 square feet remaining to offer other groups.
The mission is glad it will no longer need to rely on bunk beds, which Mr. Rogers said are used for 90 percent of its clients now.
The purchase kept an iconic building on the edge of Toledo’s downtown from meeting what seemed like an inevitable date with a wrecking ball.
But it also gave Cherry Street Mission room it needs to operate more efficiently and take on the biggest challenge in the ministry’s 66-year history.
“Think of it as a working farm within the city. I’m not interested in just putting Cherry Street within these walls,” Mr. Rogers said. “I want to create an environment where the community is engaged. Think about all of the stereotypes and barriers we could conquer.”
Cherry Street’s vision for Macomber is in its infancy.
But it starts with food, the daily need for nourishment common to every human on Earth regardless of race, religion, or economic status.
Food also fosters relationships.
Mr. Rogers doesn’t want a traditional soup kitchen. He said he is working with ProMedica and others on establishing a food court at Macomber to entice downtown workers to sit down and eat with the homeless.
He also wants to open a neighborhood grocery store on the site.
Randy Oostra, ProMedica president and chief executive officer, has said in public presentations this year that the Toledo-based health-care company wants to fight poverty by improving access to nutritious food.
To help elevate the issue of hunger nationally, ProMedica has announced plans to sponsor a half-day summit in Washington on Thursday, in partnership with the Alliance to End Hunger.
Mr. Oostra declined to be interviewed for this story. Julie McKinnon, ProMedica spokesman, said the company is reserving comment on Cherry Street’s Macomber project for now.
A new lunch counter for the community could create some part-time jobs for Cherry Street’s clientele and provide them some experience in the food-service industry, Mr. Rogers said.
Directly off Macomber’s Monroe Street entrance is an 800-seat auditorium that has created a buzz among such organizations as the nearby Toledo School for the Arts and Perrysburg-based CedarCreek ministries.
Mr. Rogers said he wants to engage the community with live performances. The layout of the building makes it possible for socialization in the food court before and after auditorium events.
“We absolutely intend upon using it, at least three or four times a year,” Dave Gierke, Toledo School for the Arts development director, said about the auditorium.
The Toledo School for the Arts has resisted the temptation of doing all of its performances in a single location. The academy believes having students perform in multiple venues give them the kind of well-rounded experience they’ll need if they intend to make a career as a performing artist, Mr. Gierke said.
The Toledo School for the Arts is eager to add Macomber to a list that includes Owens Community College, Lourdes University, the Valentine Theatre, and the newly renovated Ohio Theatre & Event Center, Mr. Gierke said.
CedarCreek is eyeing the auditorium as a fifth site for live music and video streaming of church services from its main Perrysburg campus, the Rev. Lee Powell, senior pastor, said.
Ed McCauley, CedarCreek local outreach pastor, called Macomber “a gorgeous building with great bones.”
“We’re pretty excited about it,” he said. “We love working with Dan Rogers. He’s got a dream we think is huge but accomplishable.”
On the second floor is the gymnasium, where one of Macomber’s most famous graduates — former NBA player and Ohio State University basketball standout Jim Jackson — played high school ball.
Mr. Rogers said he would love to see that become a community gym, helping to fill a void in the near-downtown area while also possibly becoming the home of a Cherry Street recreational basketball team.
He sees the potential for area residents to rub shoulders with Cherry Street clients on the court and in the stands as spectators. He said he plans to speak with the YMCA and JCC of Greater Toledo about a possible partnership.
The Macomber-Whitney Alumni Association has set a goal of raising $1 million to renovate the gym.
That commitment, said Mr. Rogers, was made after Cherry Street opened up the building earlier this month to Macomber graduates and graduates of the former Whitney High School, which used to be a girls school affiliated with Macomber. The event drew 700 people. About 300 came for a building tour earlier in the day.
Mr. Rogers has several other ways to put mainstream Toledo more in touch with Cherry Street’s clients.
One of his more ambitious ideas is to start a food-delivery service.
Another is his goal of turning an adjacent city block, between Monroe and Washington streets, into a community garden and park managed by the homeless.
More than a half-ton of produce was raised by the mission’s existing garden, much of which was used for pickles and soup.
Mr. Rogers wants garage space devoted to a program CedarCreek has under way, one in which parishioners help single mothers by repairing their automobiles.
Details still need to be worked out over who would run that program at Macomber.
CedarCreek expects to at least be a consultant. Mr. Rogers said he’s willing to turn space over to CedarCreek for that program, rent-free.
“I’m not interested in being a landlord,” Mr. Rogers said. “We all bring different talents to the table. I’m interested in co-habitation.”
Cherry Street’s proud of getting 98 men and women enrolled in college last year, he said.
“I want to increase services to people. That’s only going to happen through collaborations,” Mr. Rogers said.
First up in Macomber’s eventual overhaul is a 96,000-square-foot roof, which will cost about $1 million, and a new, four-unit boiler system, which will cost about $300,000. Both projects are to be done this fall.
Fund-raising or loans are required for most work. Cherry Street only has saved up about $500,000, Mr. Rogers said.
“In a lot of ways, I feel like Tom Sawyer trying to get his fence painted,” Mr. Rogers quipped.
The Macomber building, built in 1931, stopped being used by Toledo Public Schools in 1991.
It has retained much of its structural integrity because subsequent owners continued to use it on a limited basis for other purposes.
Creating neutral turf for society’s haves and have-nots is not an easy task.
Mr. Rogers acknowledges it will take a lot of finesse and unconventional thinking. He said he has traveled the country looking at how other cities have tried to make community-themed shelters more inclusive, not just a larger set of walls to keep distance between people of different economic means.
“That’s my madness, man,” the easygoing Mr. Rogers said with a grin and a friendly tap on a visitor’s shoulder as he wrapped up a 90-minute tour of the building and finished discussing his vision for the site.
Contact Tom Henry at: email@example.com or 419-724-6079.