Merchants say the Open Door is a magnet for the vagrants in their midst, turning Frog Level into a de facto base for a small but rowdy homeless encampment.
Meanwhile, the Open Door says it provides critical outreach and support for the needy, deflecting accusations that it’s to blame for any disruptive behavior happening on the streets.
Frog Level merchants collectively aired their concerns at a town board meeting last month, appealing to the town for help after reaching an impasse with the Open Door.
Town leaders pledged to play host for bilateral talks, but ensuing media coverage has now attracted all comers to get in on the dialog.
Town Manager Marcy Onieal said the town has gotten several cold calls from people offering to join in as mediators, problem solvers or facilitators. Some want to be part of a community-wide solution, while others simply have an opinion to air, Onieal said.
While there’s no shortage of people volunteering to pull up a chair, Onieal said she wants the first meeting to be small — essentially a one-on-one with the head of the Frog Level Merchant’s Association and the head of the Open Door before bringing in additional stakeholders.
“The first thing to do is work with the principle players to decide on a process that both parties are comfortable with,” Onieal said.
Alderman Gary Caldwell said the issue isn’t new.
“When I was a kid there were a couple bars down there, and you talk about a rough area,” Caldwell said. “The merchants are trying to build it back and get a name for that area but it actually got tore down before the soup kitchen ever existed.”
Despite Frog Level’s historic reputation as a seedy hangout, a homegrown revitalization movement has gradually taken root. Along the way, the conflict between merchants and the Open Door has periodically flared up, however.
A few years ago, Caldwell facilitated regular meetings between the Open Door and the merchants.
“I was more or less trying to work something out that would work for both entities,” Caldwell said.
Those talks died down, but a new wave of merchants have come along since then, with new impetus to try again.
“I think it is a great idea to sit down and try to work this thing out,” Caldwell said.
Caldwell said he is “neutral.” He values the charity outreach of the Open Door, citing his own work with the needy and disadvantaged through the Salvation Army and ARC of Haywood County. But he also feels for the merchants.
Alderman Leroy Roberson suggested finding out how other places have mitigated the impacts of soup kitchens and homeless shelters on surrounding areas.