One of the largest charity Christmas programs in the Southeast is in jeopardy after losing its home due to Charlotte’s booming real estate market.
The Salvation Army has operated its Christmas Center for more than a decade out of a vacant department store owned by Victory Christian Center, which offered the space for free.
But not any more.
The former Walmart has been sold by its owner, Victory Christian Center, leaving no room for the massive toy distribution program that has served as a model for other charities around the country.
Salvation Army officials are now scrambling for a temporary replacement site this Christmas, while a more permanent location is found for 2018.
Time is short, too. Major Larry Broome, head of Charlotte’s Salvation Army, says his agency would like to confirm a site this summer, because the process of ordering and storing toys begins months in advance. Registration follows in October, and not long after that, a crew will begin building thousands of bicycles.
The building is also home to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department’s Christmas program, which is hoping to again share whatever site the Salvation Army finds.
“My fear is that whatever we find might be smaller, which would mean less people would be helped,” says Broome. “This is a massive program and the space you need for it is not readily available.”
There will be a Christmas program no matter what, The Salvation Army promises. But Broome does not have many answers beyond that.
Last year, his agency distributed bags of toys to 10,455 children, as well as gifts for low-income seniors. It is considered a national model both for its size and for the fact that it uses volunteer labor and donated toys to keep costs to a minimum.
The Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department’s Christmas program, done in partnership with Explorer Scouts, provided gifts for another 1,700 children out of the building last year.
Officer Ryan Botzenmayer of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department says the CMPD Explorers Christmas Project found stability when it partnered with the Salvation Army four years ago, not to mention a reduction in operations costs.
“Yes, I’m concerned,” Botzenmayer said. “We’re into May and have no place. There is a lot that goes into these programs and we’re nearly six months into the year...This program affects a lot of people. It would be heartbreaking to lose it.”
Salvation Army officials give Victory Christian Center credit for the program’s success in recent years, because it lent the space at no charge. It’s estimated that amounted to $1 million donated to the program in the past decade, Broome said.
The building, located near Arrowood and South Boulevard, has reportedly been on the market for a few years.
That the property finally sold shows how robust Charlotte’s real estate market is becoming, particularly along the Lynx Light Rail. The tracks are just across the street from the building.
A new use for the site has not been disclosed, but it is believed to be destined for offices.
Among those advising the Salvation Army are experts in Charlotte’s real estate market. The need, they say, is a site akin to a warehouse, former school or vacant store. It must be 75,000 to 100,000-square-feet, with plenty of parking, public restrooms and access to public transportation. The agency needs it for at least four months.
The Salvation Army would prefer to have the space donated. Otherwise, Broome believes the agency will have to raise donated money to pay the rent.
Bank of America executive Bill Lorenz is among those in the community helping the Salvation Army in its search.
“For me, this is about the magic of Christmas and making sure that over 6,000 families have a chance to celebrate the holidays in a way they could not do themselves,” said Lorenz, who is on the Salvation Army’s advisory board.
“I’m hoping someone in the community will step up and help the same way Victory Christian has for a number of years. The one thing we don’t want is to be put in a position of having to downsize the program, and not serve as many families. That is a possibility and it’s a tough spot to be in.”