Gathered under the shade of two large, looming trees on empty lots on Worth Street, Ernie Mills Sr. and his son, Ernie Mills Jr., again argued that a portion of the lots the Durham Rescue Mission owns east of Alston Avenue should be removed so the mission can build its community center—and reiterated that if those twenty properties are included in the historic district, the cost of construction would make their plan nearly impossible to pull off.
“They say ‘Yes, it can be built.’ It’s with astronomical added cost,” Mills Sr., the founder and CEO of the Rescue Mission said, adding he was told by a contractor that inclusion of the tract of land in the historic district would add an estimated $800,000 to the project's price tag.
“As a nonprofit, we can’t afford that kind of cost,” he said.
When asked for details about the contractor, Mills Sr. told the INDY he would not be comfortable sharing the person's identity—or copies of the paperwork—out of fear that the contractor would be blacklisted.
According to Mills Sr., it is not unusual for the Rescue Mission to have 6,000 people at a community gathering—like its recent back-to-school event—making a community center a critical need for the organization. But additional space for after school programs and other events is not the only reason the facility makes sense.
The younger Mills said the community center and eventually affordable housing would help prevent gentrification in the neighborhood
“The net effect of the historic district would be to gentrify the neighborhood and to drive the poor from their homes. I know that’s a pretty big statement, and I intend to dig a little deeper,” he said, adding that he, too, talked with the contractor who told him that it would take $150 per square foot to renovate a home “to where someone would want to live in it,” based on historic district guidelines, as opposed to about $80 per square foot for a home located outside district lines.
Lisa Miller, a senior planner with the city-county planning department, said that for buildings that don’t contribute to the historic nature of the district—a definition that applies to many of the DRM’s properties—the criteria focus on “bigger picture items” like massing and scale of the building to make sure the building is compatible with the district. There’s also minimal criteria for design elements and materials.
“Neither the materials section nor the design element require you to replicate a historic structure by any means, but again, (the criteria are) looking for compatibility with the design of the existing structure and the materials that are present,” she said.
Mills Sr. argued that one of the key issues Durham is faced with is affordable housing — and that he was hopeful the Rescue Mission would, in the future, be able to build affordable housing on lots it owns off of Alston Avenue.
But because of the proposed district, he said there were no solidified plans for affordable housing.
Despite these setbacks, the Rescue Mission is far from being in a dire financial situation. In 2015, the nonprofit brought in nearly $11.4 million from multiple revenue sources, including contributions and grants. More than $9 million of those funds were spent on salaries, food, utilities and other expenses, leaving the organization with more than $2.3 million (that's not including over $23 million in assets), according to its latest its latest financial documents.
Mills Sr. said that beyond the press conference, his next move was to drop off 2,500 signed petitions in support of the Rescue Mission's stance at City Hall, as the City Council is expected to vote on the historic district Sept. 6.
More information on the history of this issue is available here.