Posted: January 23, 2014 Downtown Eau Claire Hotel furnishings given to Hmong group, Hope Gospel Mission
By Andrew Dowd
Beds that weary travelers used to rest upon now will provide a spot for local children to sleep in low-income homes.
Art, appliances and end tables previously occupying the inside of guest rooms at a downtown Eau Claire hotel now are for sale at a thrift store, with proceeds providing shelter and services to the area's homeless.
And instead of clearing those furnishings from the former Ramada Convention Center, 205 S. Barstow St., into a dumpster, they found a second life as the vacant hotel begins its own rebirth through a major renovation.
"We're excited to see the furniture go to good use, and are thrilled to be able to help out the community," said Zach Halmstad, a partner in Pablo Properties, which purchased the foreclosed hotel in late December from a Minneapolis financial firm.
Also the founder and co-CEO of JAMF Software, which has its main offices in downtown Eau Claire, Halmstad said two charities were invited to take anything inside the hotel rooms - including furniture, small appliances, lamps and artwork.
Families, shelters benefited
On Thursday night, Friday and Sunday afternoon, 130 local Hmong families were invited to have the first pick of furnishings in the guest rooms.
Mattress sets, desks, tables, chairs, minirefrigerators, microwaves, framed art, mirrors, blankets and sofas were popular items, said Pa Thao, executive director of the Eau Claire Area Hmong Mutual Assistance Association.
"A lot of the families that came through have children that share beds. An extra bed or two means that a child doesn't have to sleep on the sofa or on the floor," Thao said.
Families typically served by the association are considered extremely low-income, living on 30 percent or below of median household income. For them a small desk or extra bed often is something they just can't afford, Thao said.
Thirteen UW-Eau Claire student volunteers worked alongside Hope Gospel program participants Monday afternoon to clear many of the remaining furnishings out of the rooms.
"It was a semi load of product, easily," said Craig Pedersen, Hope Gospel Mission's director of business operations.
The hotel's end tables, lamps, framed art, shelving, coffee makers, mirrors, chairs, hair dryers and toasters were on sale Tuesday at Hope Gospel Mission Bargain Center, 2511 Moholt Drive, and home improvement center, Building Hope, 2108 Western Ave.
Considering the large volume of goods, Pedersen said it will be priced low to help it sell quicker. Based on the usual flow of products through their stores, Pedersen estimated it would take only a few months to get rid of the hotel merchandise.
In addition to selling the merchandise - store proceeds pay 80 percent of the budget for the organization's shelters - another benefit of the charity salvage operation is the furnishings stay out of landfills.
"A lot of commercial remodeling, a lot of their products would go in the dumpster," Pedersen said. "That's the norm and we're trying to change that."
Steel pieces from bed frames even were salvaged by Hope Gospel for sale to builders or recycling it as scrap metal.
Some items were left behind, including about a hundred older-model TVs, which use outdated technology.
"There isn't a market for tube TVs. They don't sell very well," Pedersen said.
Both Thao and Pedersen said their charities have accepted donation offers from hotels undergoing renovation in the past, but not as big as the downtown hotel.
"Obviously, we don't get an opportunity of this scale this often," said Jerry Shea, who helped organize the hotel's donations.
Shea, president of Eau Claire building firm Market & Johnson, said the company mentions to its remodeling clients that one of their options is to let charities take unwanted furnishings.
The new owners of the downtown Eau Claire hotel immediately said it's their No. 1 choice, and they already had a couple of charities in mind, Shea said.
"Obviously they're in it to make money, but their first thought is 'let's give back,' " Shea said.
The volunteer labor and charitable giving also clears out many of the items that the owners and builders need to get rid of to begin major renovations so they can reopen the hotel later this year.
"The rooms are not completely empty but getting pretty close," Halmstad said via email.
A moving company began removing the rest of the items out of the guest rooms, lobby, basement and convention center on Tuesday. Halmstad expects the building will be empty by the end of the week.
"Most of the furniture was in good condition, but did not fit the vision that we have for the hotel," he said.
Plans call for a complete overhaul of the hotel and attached convention center. The hotel's 123 rooms would be reduced to 80 to 90, including suites and long-stay rooms. A new restaurant and coffee shop also will be included in the hotel.
In addition to Halmstad's interest in revitalizing downtown Eau Claire, where many of JAMF's employees live, Shea said the hotel's new owners also want it to be remodeled as a more energy-efficient and environmentally friendly building.
The project expects to hire an architect within the next two weeks and start construction as soon as possible, Shea said.
Ready to work
UW-Eau Claire students volunteering on Monday with UW-Eau Claire's AmeriCorps ECLIPSE program were working on their day off of classes to recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
"It's living his dream, his service," said Donna Lehmkuhl, coordinator of the ECLIPSE program. The civil rights leader not only championed racial equality, but also community service and addressing poverty, Lehmkuhl said.
Students in the ECLIPSE program work year-round on early childhood literacy in the Eau Claire area, but also organize large volunteer events on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
UW-Eau Claire students volunteered Monday for Hope Gospel Mission, Community Table, Boys & Girls Club of the Greater Chippewa Valley, Beacon House, Bolton Refuge House, Feed My People Food Bank and Beaver Creek Reserve.