Members of New Castle County Council are getting calls that mirror comments made on WDEL's Facebook page every time the county's ambitious plan to turn the Sheraton hotel on Airport Road into a homeless shelter, using federal CARES Act money, is mentioned.
The hotel was purchased at auction for $19.5 million, a few hundred thousand dollars below the final appraised price. WDEL was first to report on the county's plan to use CARES Act dollars to fund the purchase.
Council President Karen Hartley-Nagle claimed she's received nearly 100 calls about the project.
"Of people that are very unhappy, and some of the things that they're unhappy about is -- will their taxes go up? Are the people in the hotel living better than they are?"
Hartley-Nagle said she supports the project, but doesn't want to misrepresent whether local funds will go towards the facility that could ultimately lead to tax increases.
"Are county monies going to be spent? So I want it on the record because I've told them, 'No, no county funds are going to be spent. Your taxes will not go up as a result of that.' But I hear, what you're doing, moving along throughout the years--is that going to continue?" she asked. "I think people are asking good questions. We need to be able to answer those."
Councilman Tim Sheldon was among the first to clap back at critical constituents, saying he's "1,000%" behind this initiative.
"I've had constituents call, and when they start moaning about the price and said, 'Why did you buy it there?' I said, 'Well, I wanted to buy it next to your house, but they wouldn't do it.'"
"I don't know of anybody who wants to be homeless. Every time I talk to somebody and said, 'Do you want to be homeless?' They say, 'No.' So when somebody asks something like that and...is worried about county money, what are we going to do? Just say, 'No, you die!?' asserted Sheldon. "That's the only thing government's really there for--it's not for all this land preservation, and all this other boohoo stuff. It's for helping people that need help."
Sheldon said he'd happily answer all of the naysayers emailing council.
"I'm tired, there's always [someone] to say something wrong, and if anybody has questions that their constituents don't like, you can put them in my email," he said.
Councilman Penrose Hollins also expressed support for the project and for those who are experiencing homelessness.
"I know there are naysayers out there...I don't want anyone on council or the administration to make some guarantee that there's no local dollars for this population because I disagree with that premise. These people live in New Castle County; they're constituents of New Castle County. New Castle County taxpayers' dollars pay for an awful lot of initiatives for everybody in the county, and I do not want to see this population excluded and make it a declaration that no local dollars would be spent on this population," Hollins said.
Councilman Dave Carter said he didn't care about the complainers and called the project a "gamechanger."
"If it does cost a little bit of county money, this is a moral imperative. We have got to do this," said Carter. "This is the most promising option I have seen in two years of dealing with this issue."
Councilwoman Dee Durham said she's comfortable with her vote to support the project, but doesn't think it's unreasonable to expect questions from counter taxpayers.
"It's only fair, and we need to have the answers for those questions," said Durham. "CARES money is taxpayer money, so all of this money is taxpayer money. So just because wee may say to a taxpayer, 'well no county money is going into it,' that may be true for the next year or two or five, but it's all taxpayer money, and they are constituents who have a right to know that we're using their money wisely," said Durham.
Nevertheless, Carrie Casey with the county's Community Development and Housing Division insisted no local tax dollars are going towards the project.
"Our first-year operating budget does not have $1 of New Castle County taxpayer money to operate the hotel. Year two, we are not projecting to use $1 of county taxpayer monies to run this hotel," said Casey. "We have a very solid operational plan in place that we've been working on for the last two-and-a-half weeks, and it does not involve any county taxpayer dollars."
Council is scheduled to vote on a budget for the hotel, which uses solely federal funding via the CARES Act and Community Development Block grant funding on December 8, 2020.
"A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity": New Castle County's bold vision
New Castle County is slated to settle on the Sheraton property on flood-prone Airport Road on December 1, 2020. Casey said they hope to open about two weeks later.
"This is a really quick turnaround," she said. "We want to make sure that we get people in as soon as possible, so getting building modifications done right after purchase has been our focus...we want to immediately begin winter shelter at the hotel."
"It's hard to hear people call me today, because it's winter, and not have a place to go, so if we're able to open December 9th, we'll open December 9th."
Casey said they're contracting with the non-profit Friendship House in Wilmington, which will run Code Purple operations out of the hotel as their hub.
"This will include 24-hour staffing by Friendship House; they will also be providing meals--not only to the clients they serve--but once we start taking referrals from the state service center, and other agencies," she said. "They're going to be engaging on day one with case management."
She said the Delaware Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health will also open a satellite clinic in the hotel, operating from the get-go.
"We will have doctors, the ability to prescribe medicine, to help people with harm reduction, for substance abuse."
The county hopes to hire existing owners, Hersha Hospitality Management, to manage the property, noting they have experience with the building and with running similar hotels that operate as emergency shelters in other states.
"They'll be able to hit the ground running," she said, taking on duties like housecleaning, maintenance, and staffing the front desk, operating under a limited extended-stay hotel model.
They'll also have a 24/7 security presence on-site and cameras to monitor the space.
The hotel is in a bit of an isolated area just off Route 141, and critics have said transportation to the facility will be a challenge. Casey said they've got a plan for that too.
"We will be transporting folks down to the Sheraton from hubs. Our hope is because it's winter, and we're in a public health emergency that once we get people in and we're able to give them a hotel room and meals, they're willing to stay unless they have to go to appointments or work, but we will have transportation moving throughout the day to get people to where they need to go," she said.
They're hoping to partner with a church in Middletown and, eventually, DART.
"We have had some initial discussions with DART, they're going to get back to us, but we will make transportation work," she said. "We hope, ultimately, it will become a bus route."
Long-term, they'll be looking for a social services anchor to maintain and coordinate the space. Once the pandemic is over, Casey said the property could become a source of permanent housing, run by an agency.
She added so many groups have expressed interest about being on-site, providing services at the facility.
In the future, she said the Delaware Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health and the domestic violence prevention community would like to be able to reserve motel rooms to help those who may be experiencing homelessness or are victims of domestic violence. Some of Wilmington's community development grant block funding will also be put towards the project, Casey said.
"One example--Colonial School District; if they have families, they'd like to be able to have a learning center with actual pods for these kids...to help with their online learning. We're actually meeting with the Food Bank...to look at the kitchen...this could be really awesome in terms of providing some employment training opportunities on-site."
And despite the naysaying and criticism, Casey described community support for the project as "overwhelming," and she'd like to give the community a chance to name the shelter through, perhaps, a contest.
"We need to change the name because the Sheraton will probably not want us to be calling it that once it's not a Sheraton, so we're thinking about putting it out into the community...Name this building, what do you think would be a good name? It has to be positive."
She called this a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have this kind of funding to provide emergency solutions.
"The focus will be on rehousing and stabilization, and our performance metrics are going to be based on exits to permanent housing," said Casey. "We need to get people to their next destination."