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After hours of hearing public comment that was overwhelmingly for the Hospitality Center to keep operating as is, the Racine Plan Commission voted 4 to 0 to defer a decision on expanding its conditional use permit.

City plan commission members met Wednesday to hear recommendations from city staffers to confirm the Hospitality Center’s conditional use permit as it was first approved in 2012 and defer any amendments for six to 12 months.

The Hospitality Center has operated outside of their permit for some time as it moved from serving light snacks and refreshments to nearly 1,000 meals a week both with volunteers and partner organizations, and the hours of operation and services offered have moved beyond what was originally approved in 2012 and isn’t appropriately managed.

Despite allegations of mismanagement, the plan commission decided to defer the decision, which allows the Hospitality Center to continue operating the way it has been until a long-term solution can be reached. But the matter is expected to be back on the plan commission agenda at its next meeting in two weeks.

A number of changes have already been made, including hiring an executive director, volunteers helping clients get access to jobs and housing, and closing the overnight shelter.

Rev. Kevin Stewart, who heads the organization that feeds people who are homeless or near homeless, said the hours were expanded out of need. But area businesses have complained said alderman Jeff Coe and he’s received a several complaints about trash, loud conversations, and vulgar language from people going to the Hospitality Center.

“We’re hoping to come up with a solution, but it’s not just a city problem… way too many things are happening within this place that it wasn’t designed for,” Coe said.

But Henry Perez, alderman for Racine’s 12th District, told the plan commission that the Hospitality Center is not a business, it’s ministry. He explained that he was troubled by the changes the city was proposing to place on the Hospitality Center. He also took issue with City Assistant Director of City Development Matt Sadowski saying that the Hospitality Center served 1,000 meals a week was “a success.” Perez called that a “failure of our community and a failure of our economy.”

“To tell an organization that has not asked very much of us to say you can’t feed a 1,000 meals a week because it violates some rule… inside your home, inside a ministry… I’m really very troubled by this because the Hospitality Center deals with clients that are rejected by the continuum of care.”

One woman, who had been a drug addict and was in prison for a number of years, told the plan commission she relied on the Hospitality Center after she got out of prison. She stayed there for three months from the time they opened until the time they closed because it was a safe place to be. She’s now getting her bachelor’s degree and turning her life around, but she’s on Food Stamps and they don’t last her long enough so she still comes to the Hospitality Center.

“I heard that we’re referred to as ‘those people,’… but we are people,” she said. “And the Hospitality Center is a place of security.”

After the public comments, plan commission member and city alderman Dennis Wiser said he had a long list of questions to ask about the Hospitality Center, but he didn’t want to vote on the measure because he would “be picking winners and losers.”  Still Wiser voiced concerns that the Hospitality Center was already operating outside of the limits of its conditional use permit.

“The last thing we want to do is begin an adversarial situation,” Wiser said.

Racine Mayor John Dickert said the deferral allows the city to start working on a solution to the problems. But plan commissioner Pastor Melvin Hargrove was concerned that the deferral would restrict the Hospitality Center from operating as it is now. When asked whether the city would start issuing citations, Dickert skirted the question.

“We’re going to start this conversation tomorrow to reach a solution,” Dickert said.





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Denise Lockwood has an extensive background in traditional and non-traditional media. She has written for Patch.com, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine and the Kenosha News.