A group of Houston County special education teachers tired of seeing their students graduate and not find work have an ambitious plan to help them, and it involves saving the New Perry Hotel.
The teachers formed a nonprofit group called HALO and are under contract to buy Perry’s most iconic building, which has been vacant for years. They want to turn a motor court behind the hotel into apartments for adults with developmental disabilities and reopen the restaurant inside the hotel. The residents of the motor court would work in the restaurant as well as other jobs around the hotel to get real-world work training and experience.
But HALO founders said city officials are against them.
Shortly after they made their plans known to the city earlier this year, City Council enacted a moratorium against new apartment projects. On Tuesday, with about 50 supporters of HALO there, City Council approved an amendment that would require a special exception for any new apartment projects with more than six apartments. That would include the New Perry Hotel project, which includes plans for 14 apartments.
Mayor Jimmy Faircloth disputed that the city’s action was aimed at stopping HALO’s plans for the New Perry Hotel.
“That couldn’t be farther from the truth,” he said. “All we are trying to do is make sure we have some review process in place.”
He said it was “unfortunate timing” that shortly after HALO announced its plans, a rumor started going around about a large apartment complex being planned near a residential neighborhood. Residents were concerned, and the city put the moratorium in place while it looked at adjustments to its zoning ordinance, Faircloth said. The moratorium was lifted Tuesday after the council approved the requirement for the special exception.
Members of HALO don’t buy that explanation.
“We do think differently, but we are going to take them at their word, and when we apply for the special exception then we will believe them when they approve that special exception,” said Melanie Murphy, one of the founders of HALO.
‘Called by God’
HALO stands for Helping Achieve Life Outcomes by Having Agape Love for Others. Most people may think of “agape” as meaning surprise or shock, but it is also a Greek word meaning selfless love.
Along with Murphy, other HALO founders are April Tew, Angela Cuti and Debbie Vickers. Murphy is a special education teacher while Tew, her sister, is a retired special ed teacher. Cuti is also a special ed teacher and Vickers is Cuti’s mother. The group includes a board of directors and as well as parents of special needs children, business people and others in the community.
Gary Martin, a Warner Robins businessman who serves on the HALO board, said upon hearing the women’s plans, his initial advice to them was that maybe buying a hotel in need of renovations was too much, and they should start smaller. But he has come to see that the hotel is perfect because it provides both housing and work opportunities.
“On one physical location you basically have a historic building that can fulfill everything they want to do,” Martin said.
Also, he said, where others have failed with the hotel and restaurant as a traditional business, a nonprofit could actually work because HALO would be eligible for grants, donations and other assistance that a business couldn’t get.
HALO’s founders said while the council’s decision gives them another hurdle to clear, it won’t stop them from going forward with their plans.
“We believe we are called by God to do this,” Murphy said.
They have until Sept. 24 to complete the purchase and said they are “very confident” it will happen. They declined to state the purchase price.
Murphy said even if City Council turns down HALO’s request for 14 apartments, the group will at least be able to have six apartments, and that will give them a start.
The three-story hotel on Main Street was built in 1925 and overlooks the downtown square. From the outside it appears to be in good shape, but HALO members gave a tour of the inside, and it’s clear a lot of work needs to be done.
However, they said they believe they can have the apartments and restaurant ready relatively quickly, and renovations on the rest of the hotel could be done over time. They did not rule out the possibility of operating it as a hotel once again.
Debbie Mullis, a HALO board member, has a 23-year-old son, Zach, who is mentally disabled and is a graduate of Perry High School. He works at Happy Hour in Warner Robins, which is similar to what HALO is planning.
“If it weren’t for Happy Hour there would be nothing,” she said. “This gives an opportunity for something local. There is no other place that Zach can work.”
She said another challenge for special needs children as they become adults is maintaining their social life.
“When these kids are in high school, that is their social life,” she said. “When they graduate and they have no where to go, they have no social life. It’s so important for them to have somewhere to go.”
She didn’t mince any words when asked what she thought about the City Council’s vote on the apartment issue.
“I do believe wholeheartedly the City Council did this to shut down HALO,” she said. “I think they envision it to be what it was in the past, which it will never be.”