Amherst to buy old VFW building for a permanent homeless shelter

  • Amherst has entered into a purchase-and-sale agreement to buy the former Veterans of Foreign War building and land on Main Street. gazette file photo

  • The former Amherst Veterans of Foreign Wars post is shown Monday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 12/5/2022 1:31:00 PM

AMHERST — Amherst officials intend to buy the former Veterans of Foreign Wars building and land on Main Street so the site can become the location of a permanent homeless shelter and affordable housing, with some of those apartments to be offered to military veterans.

On Monday, Town Manager Paul Bockelman announced he has entered a purchase-and-sale agreement with the VFW Post 754 organization to acquire the 457 Main St. property for $775,000, the appraised value of the site. The Town Council is expected to refer the matter to the Finance Committee for review.

Bockelman said in a statement that the Town Council set a goal for the town manager to establish a year-round, permanent shelter, and the town has a moral obligation to help those in need.

“This is a unique opportunity to establish a permanent space to provide shelter and deliver services to those members of our community who are unhoused and most at risk,” Bockelman said.

Since the town’s first overnight shelter began as the Warming Place in 2009 at the First Baptist Church, it has developed into a seasonal shelter under the auspices of Craig’s Doors: A Home Association Inc. Over the years, that organization has used three churches where cots are set up, meals are provided and other services are offered to guests.

Craig’s Place, the name of the seasonal shelter, is at Immanuel Lutheran Church for a second year after previously being located at the First Baptist Church, and then the Unitarian Meetinghouse. More permanent lodging has been provided to guests at the University Lodge in Amherst and the Knights Inn in Hadley.

Both Gerry Weiss, president of the Craig’s Doors board, and Timothy McCarthy, executive director of Craig’s Doors, issued a statement praising Bockelman and Assistant Town Manager David Ziomek for securing the site.

“That we can partner with the town to provide a permanent shelter as well as affordable housing for our guests and others in need of housing, fills us with delight,” they said.

Bockelman said the town’s purchase of the site will be done by using a significant portion of $1 million set aside for homeless services and transitional housing in November 2021. That money came from the $11.9 million received by the town in American Rescue Plan Act funds. The purchase-and-sale agreement meets the appraised value of the land, which is within walking distance of downtown and close to existing bus stops.

The two-story VFW building, constructed in the early 1960s by veterans of World War II, will be demolished before any project proceeds.

That building’s lower level features a bar, which served its last drinks in late February 2020, just before the onset of the pandemic, pool tables and other tables and chairs. The upper level is an open banquet hall that for many years was rented out to the community for weddings, retirement receptions and other functions. There is also a sizable parking lot surrounding the building.

The VFW Chapter, named after Earl J. Sanders, a U.S. Army private from Amherst who died in 1918 while at the front lines in Germany, was founded in 1921.

Over the past year, Craig’s Doors used the site as a supplemental resource center and daytime warming location for its guests.

How soon any project happens on the site is uncertain, though Ziomek, who with Building Commissioner Rob Morra led staff in identifying the parcel as ideal, said it will be an involved process that will follow the anticipated January 2023 closing.

“Developing a shelter, supportive housing and other services will take time, and numerous partnerships with local, regional and state organizations,” Ziomek said.

That work will include creating a funding plan for a project, finding an agency to work with for the development and locating service providers.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com
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