• 39°

Keystone backs off deal to buy old Y, will lease instead

[4/28/04]The director of a local Christian charity says safety codes are keeping an old building out of service.

Keystone Ministries has backed out of a deal to buy the 81-year-old former Junius Ward Johnson YMCA at Clay and Monroe streets and has opted, instead, to lease the property and proceed more slowly.

The decision followed notification from Vicksburg building inspectors that the five-story building, which housed renters for generations, needs extensive work to meet modern codes before it can be put back into service.

James Hartley, Keystone director, pegged the cost of a fire escape and sprinkler system at $200,000 or more, about half again what the group had planned to pay for the building.

Plans remain to restore the property and provide halfway housing and jobs for people recently released from drug and alcohol rehabilitation or confinement in prison.

“It’s a big project, but it’s not too big for the Lord and that’s who we work for,” Hartley said.

Hartley said he knows firsthand the role the YMCA has played in Vicksburg. In 1980, Hartley stayed at the YMCA after being released from drug and alcohol rehabilitation.

He credits his time there with helping him turn his life around, becoming a minister and later returning to the Warren County Jail as a chaplain. Now, Keystone wants to make the building available for others like him.

Victor Gray-Lewis, administrator of the city’s building inspection department, said the property was never officially condemned, but that the city will require some improvements including the sprinkler system, fire escapes and additional emergency exits before Keystone can occupy the building.

Nashville developer Michael Hayes bought the property in 2002 as a new YMCA off Clay Street was being built. The building was grandfathered in under city codes and did not require those improvements.

Gray-Lewis said the new rules apply now because the building is “changing use,” but said Keystone can go before the city board and seek approval to do the work in phases.

“It’s up to them to let us know what they want to do now,” Gray-Lewis said.

Hartley also indicated he believes Mayor Laurence Leyens, who owns other downtown properties, does not favor Keystone’s plan. “I’m not going to ask the mayor’s permission,” Hartley said. “He doesn’t want us here anyway.”

Leyens said last week he has no problem with Keystone’s plans, but the code will be enforced.

“If they’re going to have people living in the building, they’re going to have to have a sprinkler system,” Leyens said.

Keystone’s plans for the building, used in recent years as a fitness center, are to restore the first two floors for a restaurant, Christian book store and apartments. The plan is to then use the proceeds of those uses to fund operations and renovations of the rest of the structure.

Hartley said Keystone could have the work required by the city, including the sprinkler system, done in about five years if they can begin using the lower floors.

“It’s a good thing to do, but we need time to do it,” Hartley said.

Keystone had planned to buy the property for $420,000 with proceeds generated from the sale of the former Mississippi Hardware building at Washington and Speed.

Keystone operates a men’s shelter at 1702 Court St., which would move to the former Y. Hartley said Keystone plans to open a women’s shelter on Court Street after restoration of the YMCA building is complete.