Lowrey living: Historic hotel offers housing safety net
When Stacy Wright took over the operation of the Lowrey Hotel and Café in 2008, little did she know that she was in for an incredible roller coaster ride.
"I was looking forward to doing business in 'The City Beautiful.' But New Richmond has been anything but to me," she said.
Wright said the Lowrey's reputation as a rough-and-tumble establishment has always kept potential residents away. Gossip about the hotel and its residents often spreads like wildfire throughout the community, making it tough for the owners to keep rooms rented.
"It just seems like there is not any kind of support for local business people," Wright said. "You hear a lot of negative comments from people in the community. It seems some are more interested in seeing people fail rather than succeed."
When Wisconsin banned smoking in restaurants and bars, the café suffered. It eventually closed when Wright decided she couldn't afford to upgrade equipment and competition for customers grew.
"A lot of people were upset when I closed the restaurant," she explained. "There were 20 different reasons why I closed it, but the gossip spread the worst possible stories. It was not the neighborly thing to do."
A federal housing discrimination complaint in 2010 resulted in sanctions against the business. Wright said an agreement was reached before she had a chance to defend herself against the accusations. As a result of the complaints, parole officers and non-profit agencies dealing with the homeless stopped referring clients to the Lowrey.
"It costs $6,000 to $8,000 a month to run this place," Wright estimated. "I don't make a lot of money at this to begin with, but all of that really hurt my business."
As she approaches the end of her five-year lease, Wright said she's not sure if she'll renew and continue operating the local hotel. Wright said it would be a shame if New Richmond no longer had such a facility that caters to low-income residents.
Through all the challenges, Wright has held tightly to the belief that the Lowrey serves a critical role in the community.
The Lowrey building features 36 rentable rooms, some with private baths and some with shared baths. When the facility opened more than 100 years ago, it was a posh establishment with a fancy dining room, indoor plumbing and all the finest amenities of the time.
Today, however, the hallways are dark and dingy and rooms are furnished with nothing more than the basics. The management makes a valiant effort to keep things clean and functional, offering housekeeping and bedding services once a week. Residents are urged to keep shared bathroom facilities tidy.
"Our motto is, 'It's not the Ritz Carleton, but that doesn't mean you will be treated like it isn't,'" Wright said.
Some folks who call the Lowrey home choose the facility so they can keep expenses low and live a simple lifestyle.
For others, Wright readily admits, the Lowrey often serves as a residence of last resort. She said quite a few residents come to the Lowrey with mental health or disability issues. On occasion, that may lead to police visits at the Lowrey.
"For many, they are one step from being homeless," she said.
Wright said the residents of the Lowrey are no different than everyone else in the community, they are just in need of a helping hand.
"Everybody has issues, just like everybody in the world," she said. "Some of the issues are more severe that others, and those issues can lead people here."
When new residents come to the Lowrey, Wright said she's ready and willing to help people get their feet back on the ground.
"People come here without money, without clothes, without medication... with nothing," she said. "Depending on what their situation is, we see what we can do to help."
Wright helps connect residents with social service organizations that can assist them. She also works with a local industry to find jobs for people.
"We try to help so they can keep a roof over their heads," she explained. "It's kind of a calling for me to help these people. I get involved with these people's lives."
Vince Williamson has been living at the Lowrey for eight months and appreciates the hotel.
"It's affordable and people can get back on their feet," he said. "This is like a refuge for me."
Williamson said he gives his fellow residents heck if they don't try to keep things clean. There are also attempts to keep the noise down when people are sleeping.
"Us older people have to tolerate the younger," he said with a smile.
Even though he doesn't drink or do drugs, Williamson said the fact that he lives at the Lowrey has apparently branded him as an addict or criminal.
"There's a stigma on this place and it's not right," he said. "People shouldn't judge you."
Down the hall, Pat Belisle said she once left the Lowrey but returned.
"They provide everything I need," she said. "I like it here."
A couple doors down, Kerry and Marissa Floyd live with their newborn, Kerry Jr.
Kerry Sr. came to New Richmond two years ago to help take care of his mother. He's lived at the Lowrey ever since.
"It's like a family here," Kerry said. "Everyone is welcome here."
Wright hopes to continue operating the Lowrey after her lease expires in August. It would be great, she said, if the community rallied around her and the residents of the hotel to ensure that the facility continues to offer housing for those in crisis.
"I would like to see people in the community not be so judgmental," she said. "I don't know when the Lowrey got its reputation, but it isn't a free-for-all any more. People here get along more like a family should get along. They have each other's backs and they get the support they need."
Wright said it would be wonderful if local organizations or businesses would step up to help the Lowrey and its residents in the future. She said many of the hotel residents are available for small jobs, like shoveling, doing lawn work or working on projects.
"They just have to call and tell us what they need done," Wright said. "We'll send the right person for the job if they're here. And it might mean the difference between them getting a hot meal that day or not."
Wright said she'd also appreciate help with some painting and restoration projects at the hotel. Donations of beds and other items would also be helpful, she added.
At the very least, Wright said it would be wonderful if people in the community started supporting the Lowrey and its residents with positive words.
"If someone is struggling, lift them up and don't knock them down," she urged.
Wright said she'd be thrilled if the Lowrey had to close because everyone has a home and gets the support they need from family and friends. She admits that the need for shelter the hotel provides is not likely to disappear soon, however.
"The best feeling I have is when someone moves out of here," she said. "When they get an apartment and get a car... they leave as a productive citizen. It's great when they go forth into the world again."