The Orlando Union Rescue Mission’s impending move is filled with backroom deals, fictitious names and the not in my backyard philosophy that has kept the nonprofit shopping for a new home for three years.
Fred Clayton, the mission’s president and CEO, blames an investigation of the controversial move by the state Attorney General’s office on a lack of public understanding. He said people think of the mission as a shelter but he prefers to call it “a home, which educates, trains, counsels and rehabilitates residents teaching them how to become independent and self sufficient.”
The lawyer and former businessman took the job a year ago but has been involved in the Orlando Union Rescue Mission (OURM) for seven years as a volunteer, brokering the deal between the City of Orlando, Orlando Magic and the mission to juggle properties and make everyone happy.
The Orlando Magic wants the mission’s property on West Central Boulevard to build its new entertainment complex. So the Magic purchased the Parkwood Inn, which was used as an extended-stay hotel on the seedy side of West Colonial Drive as a trade. The Magic purchased the hotel for $2.8 million under the fictitious name, Orlando Development Partners Xvi, and then sold it to the mission for $10.
Joel Glass, spokesman for the Magic, declined to comment and referred all questions to the City of Orlando. Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer didn’t want to talk about how the deal went down either.
“Because of the essential services to the homeless the OURM provides, Mayor Dyer has been committed to working with the OURM to find a location to build an improved men’s service center,” Cassandra Lafser, press secretary for the City of Orlando, wrote in an email.
“This was a private purchase between the OURM and the previous property owners,” the statement said. “Our involvement, as it would be with anyone looking to purchase and develop a piece of property we are not an owner of, was limited to our planning department and the development of the property.”
Clayton said he was just trying to find a space to expand the men’s center, which is filled to capacity at 120 beds. He has spent the last three years trying to find a suitable location, after neighbors rebuffed three other attempts.
The city had identified a city-owned property north of Anderson Street and east of Terry Avenue as an option for the relocation in 2015. It required a land development code amendment that was appealed and that appeal never heard as the mission purchased the property on West Colonial Drive.
The Magic have agreed to purchase the current men’s center on West Central Boulevard above the appraised value of $800,000 and also renovate the hotel to 220 beds, according to Clayton, who would not give the exact purchase price nor the cost of the renovations.
“The Magic have been great partners and very generous,” he said.
Save West Orlando filed the complaint with the state and wants to put the breaks on the move. Former Orange County Commissioner Homer Hartage and chairman of Save West Orlando has made charges of racism and collusion. He said the city is dumping all its social services into an area where the disadvantaged citizens are least likely to fight back. He also challenged how hotel zoning applies to the mission and wondered how the project was passed without a public hearing or public comment.
Sarah Graham, whose Haralson Estates home is behind the mission’s new location, said she has attended 11 meetings during the past three years opposing the project in her neighborhood.
“The government, the Magic they all do sneaky business deals,” said Graham. “There’s a lot of underhanded stuff going on here.”
She questioned Clayton’s claim that the residents of the mission will be better neighbors than those who stayed in the extended-stay hotel.
“Let’s face it, they’re not angels or they wouldn’t be in the mission to begin with,” she said. “How do we know they’re not thieves.”
Clayton countered that the men who live at the mission agree to stay supervised on the property for their first 90 days and once they find a job they must put 75 percent of their earnings in savings for their future.
“In our 69 years of experience, the men who live with us do not cause problems,” Clayton said. “We will enhance the neighborhood because our residents are completely contained and controlled while they are working to transform their lives.”
Ronnie Robinson said Haralson Estates was a nice neighborhood when he bought his home in 1985. He remembers when the Parkwood Inn was a Hilton Hotel and Elvis Presley stayed in the penthouse suite.
“It’s just a shame, its full of gunfire, drug dealers and prostitutes now,” said Robinson, who pointed to the Maxwell Terrace housing project next to the Parkwood Inn as part of the problem. “I don’t care if the mission moves in. I just don’t want them to dump any more pedophiles on us.”
The city has said that there were several sexual predators and sexual offenders who lived at the Parkwood Inn but the mission does background checks on its residents and will not allow them into the program.
The Rescue Mission’s new home will be enclosed with 10-foot fences and include a chapel, classrooms, computer lab and 220 beds. The mission’s iconic red cross that sits atop the current location will be moved to a courtyard in the new center. Clayton hopes to have the former hotel renovated by Thanksgiving.