The Gazette covers City Hall, now a flood-damaged icon on May's Island in the Cedar River

An idea and an idea guy — disliked in some quarters for some time — have proven right in the end

In Scott Olson on April 12, 2009 at 8:20 am

Scott Olson’s idea worked beautifully.

Today, some two years after Olson broached it, the idea has three vital helping services entities — Green Square Meals, the Ecumenical Community Center and the Witwer Senior Center Meals Program – in a new home in what had been a hard-to-lease space at 601-605 Second Ave. SE.

For Olson’s idea and initiative, the three groups now have invented an award to thank him. The three groups call it the Pillar of the Community Achievement Award.

The idea was not easy to turn into reality.

Firstly, it was hated by many associated with the meals program. Olson was even disliked for the idea in some quarters.

It was hated because it was such a good idea. It was so good that it allowed a majority of the City Council to conclude two years ago that the council could insist that the beloved Green Square Meals program move from the city’s dilapidated building in the downtown Greene Square Park. The building was used for nothing for the couple hours on weekdays for the meals program, it had fallen into disrepair and the city wanted to demolish it.

Even so, the council – it was a 5-4 vote for the meals program to move – easily could have voted for the meals program to stay but for Olson’s idea.

He proposed that the meals program move nearby to the 601-605 Second Ave. SE space where it could still easily serve a homeless and low-income population in the downtown. And the deal was similar to what it had enjoyed in the city. A $1-a-year lease.

In truth, it took another year for Green Square Meals – a devoted band of volunteers who had been a hot, evening meal from the park building for years – to settle on the fact that the Second Avenue site would be the program’s new home.

In March 2008, Olson announced that renovation of the building was readying to begin.

In June, though, the flood came and set all the plans aside. Olson’s own Skogman Realty office on the first floor of the downtown Higley Building was swamped with water.

It took until this January for the project to get moving again. By this time, the project had a bigger scope. The Witwer Senior Center, which was flooded out of its downtown home, would be moving its noontime meals program into the Second Avenue site. The kitchen would be bigger and Witwer would contribute to some of cost of outfitting the bigger, nicer kitchen.

It’s all been up and running now for a little more than a month. Myrt Bowers last week said her program – its long-range plan is still to relocate in a few to several years in a proposed, new community center – and Green Square Meals now ’ program now are serving meals to the same number of people who have been coming to the programs prior to the flood.

Olson last week provided a tour of the new digs, both the 605 Second Ave. SE space where the meals programs operate to the 601 Second Ave. SE space, which is connected by an interior hallway. The latter address is where the Ecumenical Community Center has its lineup of offices – from the Helping Hands Ministry to Churches United to Narcotics Anonymous to the Foman Infant Nutrition Unit.

Olson acknowledged that there were at least two reasons that his idea for merging helping-services entities in the same place had met with some skepticism.

The first was that Green Square Meals understandably wanted to stay in the city’s park building, which had become the program’s home.

“It was very emotional,” Olson says. “Green Square Meals looked at their options.”

Secondly, though, was the complication that Olson’s role as Ecumenical Center board member, Realtor and property owner brought into the mix.

As he explained last week, Olson and a group of nine other partners have invested in a group of buildings in the city in recent years with an idea of renovating them into a different use. The WaterTower Place condominiums is one such example.

This group of 10 investors, he said, owned 50 percent of the 601/605 Second Ave. SE building, which had had mixed success at finding tenants.

At the same time, Olson was a board member of the non-profit Ecumenical Community Center Foundation, which had a building at 1035 Third Ave. SE, a building that Cardiologists P.C. next door was interested in purchasing.

Cardiologists PC purchased the Third Avenue building, and the Ecumenical group used the money to purchase the Second Avenue building for its new home and the new home of Green Square Meals.

Olson last week said he collected no Realtor fees on the sale of the Second Avenue building, and he said he contributed far more in cash and time into the project than the $2,500 or so he might have made on the building’s sale and his 5 percent interest in it.

Olson said he can’t do anything more than that about the property transactions that when into the stew that allowed his idea, first hatched more than two years ago, to go to reality.

“I know people are pleased that the idea worked,” he says.

He notes that each of the three entities retain their individual identities but are sharing a space, sharing electric bills and sharing maintenance of the building.

“You never give up,” Olson continues. “You put people together, and you just keep working at it.”

The total renovation cost to make the Second Avenue building into a new home for three groups is $1.2 million, most of which Olson raised from private donors. The donations range from $5 to $100,000, he says, with much more in the way of cabinets to floor coverings to furniture donated from local companies.

Olson, who has been a mainstay on community boards for the Four Oaks family services agency and Geneva Towers for years, says his involvement is no different than the involvement of all who donated to the Second Avenue project and to all the volunteers who daily join in community efforts like Green Square Meals.

“You participate. It’s part of living in a town,” he says.

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