BELLEVILLE — The Rev. Larry Rice wants the former downtown YMCA building to be converted into a homeless shelter.
But Mayor Mark Eckert said there is no way to use the building, which also is known as Turner Hall, because it needs too many repairs.
"Turner Hall is in deplorable condition," Eckert said. "Unless someone had $3-4 million to spend on it, that building isn't fit to put a living soul in. You're talking millions of dollars to fix it. And if it was fixed, is it fair to downtown property owners to invest in a shelter in the middle of the business district?"
Rice has pushed recently for the metro-east to do a better job of assisting its homeless. He said many Belleville area residents end up at his shelter run by the New Life Evangelistic Center in St. Louis because there is nowhere for them to go closer to home.
Rice will speak at 10 a.m. Thursday in front of the building to push Belleville leaders to let him turn the building into a shelter.
The building, at 15 N. First St., was home to the downtown Belleville YMCA until 2006 when the organization moved to a new building on South Illinois Street. Since then, the red brick building, which opened in 1923, has been the source of debate between city leaders.
The city bought the building from the YMCA for $1.
Some in Belleville have tried to have the old YMCA building restored as a historic landmark.
Larry Betz, a local history enthusiast who leads the effort, said it would cost about $133,000 just to fix the building's leaky roof.
Beyond that, Turner Hall is said to be contaminated with mold and full of asbestos that would have to be removed.
In addition to addressing the ongoing need for a shelter in Belleville, Rice said he will talk about starting a local chapter in Belleville of Christians United for Compassionate Government. He said he would be willing to discuss other potential sites for homeless shelters.
"We are in such dire need of a shelter. I'm all for a shelter that's managed well and I do think it's very important that the community is on board with it," said Pat Hogrebe, development coordinator for St. Vincent de Paul. "If you put a shelter somewhere in a community and the community is not in favor of it, then it's not going to work. It's a wonderful idea, if everyone can work collectively to make it succeed."
Hogrebe, who works with homeless individuals and families, said a shelter in the county is much needed.
"But my gut feeling is that it all hinges on how well it is developed and how it is managed," she said. "You could have a real eyesore and a real problem for the community, or, you could have a decent facility for people to go to and it could be a real asset to the community, if it is managed well."
Members of the St. Clair County Homeless Initiative have had meetings in recent years to discuss ways to help the homeless.
Eckert said he invited Rice to take part in committee meetings about homelessness and poverty issues, but Rice hasn't come to the talks.
"I'm still waiting to hear from Mr. Rice to meet with us about some of the things that we have been discussing in ongoing meetings," Eckert said. "I don't know who is feeding him this stuff and why he wants to keep focusing on Belleville instead of St. Clair County in general. For whatever reason he is trying to make news over here and I am more saddened that he isn't more sincere in working with us to try to address the issue of homelessness and poverty."
Eckert said he was not informed about Rice's plan before a reporter called to ask him about it. He said he has a full schedule Thursday and does not plan to be at Turner Hall for Rice's event.
Reporter Jennifer A. Bowen contributed information for this article. Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at email@example.com or call 618-239-2626.
Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 618-239-2626.