Former auto bank gets new lease on life
In September of 2014, the former Lincoln County Auto Bank, located at 301 W. Main St., got a new lease on life; literally.
According to Jan Ament of Lincoln Community Bank, the building opened as a drive-up service in 1976, under the institution’s former name of Lincoln County Bank, In 2011, banking operations at the location ceased and the building remained vacant until it appeared on Dee Olsen’s radar.
“We had been searching for a location for a prospective warming center since 2012,” says Olsen, who serves as the Executive Director for Merrill United Way. At first it sounded good to open the warming center in the newly-vacated Merrill Fire Station #1.
“City officials were very cooperative and supportive of the idea, until they discovered how much work the station would require to accommodate a warming center,” Olsen said.”We just didn’t have the funding we would need to invest, so we looked for other options.
“At the end of August, we were approached by Housing Authority Director LaDonna Fermanich who suggested we have a look at the old Auto Bank building. An hour later we did a walk through,” Olsen explains as she leads me on a tour of the Warming Center along with Volunteer Coordinator Barb Ziemer.
“I remember thinking as we took the tour, ‘this is it, this is just what we need!’” she adds with a smile. “Despite all the cobwebs and renovating we would need to do, I just knew it was the right place for us. The three warming center sub-committee members who were with me agreed! I took a copy of a lease to the executive committee and we signed September third.”
“She definitely did not waste any time, that’s for sure!” Ziemer jokes with a laugh.
With the help of donations, volunteer labor and assistance from Habitat for Humanity, converting the building from a financial institution to a home-like warming center was completed in less than a month.
The center is now equipped with a wide array of amenities to accommodate those who need a place to get out of the elements for a night such as a washer and dryer, wall-mounted flat screen television, two coffee pots, a microwave and eight recliners.
“Believe it or not, there are homeless in Merrill and Lincoln County,” Olsen further explains. “As a member of the Lincoln County Homelessness Task Force, we performed what are called point-in-time studies every January and July. During these studies, we would venture out between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. in an attempt to locate homeless persons. If and when we found them, we would ask them a few questions to help us determine the extent of homelessness in the area. Schools are also required to report homeless counts of students.”
According to Olsen, homeless counts range from 55-70 in the winter months and 25-30 in the summer months. Winter counts tend to be higher due to school reports. Olsen defines “homeless” as anyone who does not have an established residence.
“We are here to serve those in need of a place to rest and warm up for the night. Whether it’s someone down on their luck for a night, or someone who has no place else to go, we welcome everyone here. We have had some guests who have stayed a night and have not returned, and we have some who have returned,” Ziemer adds.
Since the center opened Nov. 1, Ziemer reports having served six guests and there has been only a couple of nights when the center has been empty.
“The road has definitely not been easy. When we started looking at this, it was on a wing and a prayer,” Olsen says. “Insurance posed an issue for us right away. Believe it or not, insurance is not easy to find for a place like this. We also had quite a long list of renovations. As I’m sure you can imagine, converting a building from a bank to a home-like setting is a task in itself. On that note, we just can’t say enough about the work of our volunteers, our committee members and Habitat for Humanity! Mark Cooper and his crew from Central Carpet were very generous in donating their time and effort in installing all of the new flooring. We have to pick up a few things here and there, but thanks to the generous Merrill community we haven’t had to pay for much.”
Both Ziemer and Olsen agree the center is currently well stocked with needed items and once again credit the community for that.
“This community is just amazing with their generosity,” Ziemer says. “We learned early on to list a specific number when asking for donated items. If we asked for a men’s jacket, next thing we know we have 50 of them!” she adds with a laugh. “Anything we receive and do not need, goes back to the community.”
The Merrill Community Warming Center is open to anyone age 18 and over from 7-9 p.m. daily with an open door policy. After 9 p.m., admission is only granted to those with a police escort. The center will close for the season April 1, but may extend until April 15 if necessary due to lingering cold weather. The center is not licensed to accept children, however in the event a family with children is in need of assistance, other resources are available.
Ziemer and Olsen would like to emphasize the center is not a shelter.
“We are not licensed to prepare food,” Olsen says. “We can provide canned goods, pre-packaged foods and microwaveable foods but due to state regulations we cannot prepare food or serve prepared food.
“We have received and been asked about donations of cooked foods and we would love nothing more than to serve if we could! Unfortunately, we are just not allowed.”
Any questions pertaining to the Merrill Community Warming Center can be directed to Barb Ziemer at 715-218-0231.