What was once a series of restaurants and clubs – most recently “Ms Choc’s Lounge” which Roanoke police described as a “hotspot” of criminal activity – is now a community center with a very bright future ahead of it.
After a kitchen fire shut down Ms Choc’s on Melrose Avenue about two years ago a new idea sprang to life – why not turn the building into something positive for the northwest Roanoke neighborhood near the corner of 24th Street and Melrose Avenue – a community center?
One million dollars-plus later, Feeding America Southwest Virginia has done just that, with the help of block grants from the City of Roanoke and generous donations from partners like Food Lion ($350,000), which also supports the Salem-based food bank with donations on a regular basis. The ribbon was cut on the Community Solutions Center in late May.
Beginning in early June Goodwill Industries of the Valleys will use the remodeled kitchen to train food service workers for new jobs. They in turn will also turn out 500 lunches for summer programs that will be distributed to 16 sites around the valley, earmarked for kids that might not otherwise have a guaranteed nutritious meal when they are not in school.
Among those on hand for the ribbon cutting was Grover Price, co-director of the Hope Center on 11th Street NW. Initially skeptical of “outsiders” like Feeding America coming into northwest to try and help resolve the issues there – like gun violence and distrust of the police – Price said he was willing to give the Community Solutions Center (CSC) a chance. “I would definitely like to see it succeed. Everyone knows this is a community that is desperate for resources.”
Price attended at the urging of Roanoke delegate Sam Rasoul. “Time will tell, but I hope that they will serve the community and feed some of these kids that are hungry, give them something to do.” He also hopes the culinary arts program succeeds. The CSC will feature a community space for the neighborhood – which the Roanoke police department also plans to use to meet with local residents in a more informal atmosphere, hoping to create a better relationship. Feeding America Southwest Virginia estimates it will cost around $600,000 to run programs there – including youth mentoring – over the next two years.
Retired Roanoke City police captain Rick Morrison first pitched the idea to Feeding America of buying the former Ms Choc’s lounge and then transforming it. “There was a lot of skepticism because of the vision – to reopen it as a Community Solutions Center – that’s big,” said Morrison, who now travels the country working with local police departments on how to foster better relationships with the communities they work in. Those “big dreams, big visions,” also meant “big money,” said Morrison about the CSC on Melrose Avenue.
Morrison reached out to the City of Roanoke, which was able to free up some left over Community Development Block Grant money ($250,000) for the project. Then Feeding America saw how establishing a base in northwest Roanoke could be a good thing and “they stepped up,” said Morrison.
As for the chance create a better relationship between the police department and residents in northwest: “it’s going to be huge. There’s always been this stereotype – especially in [neighborhoods] of sensitivity – when you’re seen talking to a police officer you’re automatically … a snitch. Even good folks who would like to talk to police officers don’t for fear of being labeled a snitch. Having a site like this, I call it a neutral area, a safe spot. Let’s really get to know each other.”
Feeding America Southwest Virginia President and CEO Pamela Irvine – who has received awards recently from Feeding America nationally and from Food Lion corporate – said, “We’re very proud of the collaborative partnership and the work that’s going to happen in that center. We’re getting a lot of support.” An advisory council of local residents helped the CSC hone its mission notes Irvine.