Original article from The Ocala Star Banner

Ritz to become home for veterans

By Harriet Daniels
Staff writer
Published: Monday, March 7, 2011 at 2:21 p.m.

Doug Engle/Staff photographer
The Ritz Historic Inn in Ocala is set to become a transitional housing facility for homeless veterans.

The Ritz Historic Inn, a landmark that has weathered foreclosures, bankruptcies and multiple owners in recent years, is set to become transitional housing for homeless veterans.

Details of the project, which is expected to be completed this summer, will be outlined at a community meeting at 10 a.m. today at the Ritz, 1205 E. Silver Springs Blvd.

Wendy Whitescraver, resource development manager for Volunteers of America Florida, said as renovation of the 86-year-old building gets under way, the first priority will be soliciting community help to furnish the rooms and gathering volunteers to help with a variety of tasks.

“There is so much that is needed,” Whitescarver said. “We will have a list for people to sign up for where they are interested in helping us. It’s endless what people can do.”

Volunteers of America, a nonprofit organization in business since 1896, has similar programs for homeless veterans around the country, nine of them in Florida. Those include programs in Gainesville, Lake City, Jacksonville, Tallahassee and Miami. A 20-bed facility is opening soon in Pensacola, along with a 22-bed facility in Bradenton.

The Ritz is expected to house 50 veterans who will be referred to the 2-year transitional housing program by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The facility also will help veterans to live independently.

Volunteers of America, with a matching grant from Veterans Affairs, purchased the building for $800,000 in late 2010 from Danny G. LLC, whose listed managing member is Ocala businessman Danny Gaekwad.

The total project cost is estimated at $2 million, including renovation.

Gaekwad, owner of the Holiday Inn and Suites and Country Inns and Suites in Ocala, purchased the Ritz for $501,000 in a foreclosure auction in January 2010.

The Ritz, foreclosed in 2009, was last operated as a hotel by Al and Rajesh Patel, who purchased the property for $1.5 million in 2005.

Initially built in 1926 as a luxury apartment complex known as Ritz-Acker Apartments, the site underwent restoration in the 1980s and in 1986 was added to the National Registry of Historic Places.

The last two decades have been nothing short of rocky for the 2.5-acre property, which has had at least seven different owners.

The owners included Tampa-based Greater Ministries International, which purchased the building in 1997 to operate a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center.

However in 1999, the ministry declared bankruptcy and founder Gerald Payne and six others were indicted on a long list of federal charges of conspiracy, mail fraud, wire fraud, and money laundering.

Whitescarver said they knew there was a great need for veteran housing in the area.

Most homeless veterans in Volunteer of America programs around the country are largely from the Vietnam War. However, an increasing number are coming from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The VA estimates that 107,000 veterans are homeless on any given night. Florida is home to an estimated 9,000 homeless veterans, but the state has just over 730 transitional beds available.

Peggy Hearlson, state coordinator of veteran affairs and rehabilitation for the American Legion Auxiliary, has visited facilities in Tallahassee and Lake City and was impressed with how well they were maintained.

“This year when I had to pick a project for us to get involved, this was my choice,” she said. “As a state officer I’m so pleased to have a project in my own back yard.”

Hearlson said American Legion Post 284 in Belleview has been instrumental in helping open the local facility.

“And we need more help from the community. We can’t do it alone,” she said.

The goal, Hearlson said, is for organizations to adopt a room to furnish and decorate or provide equipment, or provide painting or roofing services and pool upkeep. The building’s mission/Spanish revival architecture will remain intact and will carry over into the decor of rooms and common spaces.

Once open, the site will employ a full-time staff but the numbers are yet to be determined. Also unknown for now is the name of the facility.

Pamela Stafford, former president of the Historic Ocala Preservation Society, or HOPS, said she would like to keep Ritz in the name.

“In all the changes it’s continued to be the Ritz,” Stafford said. “And I’m sure it would be a lot to the local community and continue to perpetuate the history if it’s still the Ritz.”

Contact Harriet Daniels at harriet.daniels@starbanner.com or 867-4125.