Catholic Charities finds alternative office space after fire

Diocese of Knoxville agency is operating in new downtown development where Regas Restaurant was located

By Dan McWilliams

Catholic Charities of East Tennessee has found a new Knoxville headquarters after an arson fire Nov. 28 at its Dameron Avenue building forced the agency to move.

CCETN has relocated its administrative offices and several programs, including the Pregnancy Help Center, to the Regas Building on North Gay Street near downtown.

Lisa Healy, executive director of CCETN, was just settling into the new site on Jan. 24, having had phones installed and other necessities put in place within the last few days.

“We looked at a lot of different spaces around town,” she said. “Jim Staley [of Coldwell Banker Real Estate] worked with us to really go out and look at spaces. We probably looked at 15. The opportunity we ran into is that there were spaces available, but they couldn’t be ready in a reasonable amount of time. This space here at the Regas Building is for nonprofits. Richard Consoli, my vice president of the board, had mentioned this space, that Big Brothers Big Sisters were in this space and they were going to be leaving, so we came over to take a look at it.

“It’s been really a great space because we can accommodate pregnancy, administration, and then desks for our other programs such as Columbus Home Assisting Parents [CHAP], a Hope Kitchen desk, as well as Community Supportive Housing.”

The fire occurred at the end of Thanksgiving weekend. Police discovered the blaze when responding to an alarm at the building at about 10:30 p.m. Firefighters discovered a gasoline can and a matchbook near the window the perpetrator broke to gain entry. Fire gutted much of the building’s interior, and there was extensive smoke and water damage. The interior was deemed a total loss.

Mrs. Healy, who also credited Cory Bond of OfficeWorks in Knoxville for helping with the office furniture in the move, said Catholic Charities likes its new space “a lot because it really allows us to operate together like we were at Dameron. Everyone’s together. It allows us then to have our clients who come to see us, including clients who were in our actual neighborhood to come down here and visit with us, so we’re not spread out all over town. We’re still at the same place together serving customers through our programs. It’s really helpful not to be spread out. In between the fire and this building, we occupied a small conference space, it was probably about a 12-by-16 room, over on Division Street. We had all these people sitting around one conference table for a month. It was difficult, but it served while we found this space.”

CCETN expects to be at the Regas Building, which is only about a mile or more from Dameron Avenue, “between 12 and 18 months,” Mrs. Healy said.

“We’re a few blocks down from where we were before, which is really helpful for us to continue serving clients,” she said. “For those clients who can’t get down here, especially for Pregnancy Help, we take the van over to Dameron twice a week and we deliver diapers and wipes to those clients to continue service.”

The Regas Building dates back some 130 years, having been constructed around 1891 and originally known as the Caswell & Harris Building and later as the Harris Building. It was home to the Watauga Hotel for a number of years before Greek immigrants Frank and George Regas, who had opened a café near Summit Hill in 1919, moved their eatery to the Watauga Hotel site in 1922. The Regas Restaurant would serve the Knoxville area for 88 years, closing in 2010. The popular gathering place’s staffers in the 1940s included a young Dave Thomas, who later founded the Wendy’s restaurant chain.

Catholic Charities is looking forward to returning to its Dameron location.

Lisa Healy, center, stands with members of the Catholic Charities of East Tennessee team: Elizabeth Sullivan, Judd VanSickle, Ernestine Meiners, Sherrill Vasicek, and Sandi Davidson in their temporary office space.

“The building on Dameron is now really just a cleanup and restoration, and then we’ll get ready for a remodel,” Mrs. Healy said. “The exterior footprint will be the same, but we will remodel inside so we can better meet the needs of Catholic Charities and the capacity of the programs that we have today. They’re still doing the cleanup, and then of course to rebuild. The [Dameron] building is about 6,400 square feet, which sits directly across from the Knox County Health Department, which is really a great partner with Catholic Charities. It’s a great location for us, so we want to get back there.”

Speaking Jan. 24, Mrs. Healy told of the still-in-flux move to the Regas Building.

“We have been seeing clients in the pregnancy area. We really just got—you can see I don’t have a desk yet. I’m still working off my pet grooming foldout table from my house,” she said. “They finished putting furniture up on Friday. We got desks last week, and we got office phones Thursday, and they finished the cubicles on Friday. Today is like the first day that Elizabeth [Sullivan, of CHAP] is in here. We got a coffeepot machine today. We’re official now.”

The agency’s phone, 865-524-9896; website, ccetn.org; and e-mails remain the same.

“We’ll have 18 in this building, plus volunteers,” Mrs. Healy said. “Pregnancy Services, the administration, which is bookkeeping, development, communication/marketing, programs, HR, so that’s here, and then we have CHAP here. The CHAP program really goes out and does case management in homes. So, [Ms. Sullivan] offices here and then goes into homes in Knox County. Then Community Supportive Housing, which is Annette Beebe—she has a desk here, and then she works in our affordable-housing homes that we have in the Knoxville area.”

CCETN has had a whirlwind three months since the fire, which came at a key time of the year for the agency.

“There’s a lot of work to do,” Mrs. Healy said. “It was particularly difficult—the blessing is that nobody was hurt, so that was really good, but it’s very inconvenient because the fire was the weekend of Thanksgiving, and so what happens between Thanksgiving and New Year’s is really just a lot of activity around Christmas and giving to the community as well as donors giving to us. All that development and all that activity that we do around clients and community really was difficult to do—although we did it, it was very difficult. Truly, we’re just getting the mail straight. Just getting mail has been difficult. Last week I was opening envelopes that were put in the mail in mid-December. There was a lot of difficulty around that.”

Mrs. Healy said, “It’s amazing, even though the administrative activity you do to manage the mission doesn’t change, but when you break up the routine and processes, it becomes very difficult.”

“We were really helped a lot by the development team in the diocese, just so we could get letters out or get our donations in the system or postmark our envelopes. We had to go to the diocese for that. All of our equipment got burned up. We were without a copier or scanners. Just little simple things—we went to write a letter, and we had to go buy stationery, and then we were like, ‘Oh, we don’t have any stamps to put a letter out.’ It just is kind of crazy—no paper, no envelopes, you just don’t have anything.

“We’ve rebuilt here a little bit, but at first it was difficult. Then when we were all in one room, it became difficult to operate, so we had a lot of people who worked at home, and some weren’t used to it. Elizabeth said today, ‘I’m so glad to have a space here Monday morning so I can have my crafts table back at my house.’ Everybody just burrowed in where they needed to just to keep the mission going. A couple times, you could catch me and [grant administrator] Ada [Hernandez-Bell] meeting in the kitchen of the [Chancery] because the conference rooms were booked there, so there’s a little table in the corner of the kitchen, and we found ourselves meeting there a couple times, just to have a place that was quiet where we could get some things done,” Mrs. Healy noted.

CCETN is growing as it settles into its temporary base on Gay Street.

“We’re in the middle of a lot of program growth, with pregnancy expansion, ultrasound and adoption opportunities,” Mrs. Healy said. “We just started in the fall a relationship with Covenant Homecare, with respite care for the homeless, over at Samaritan Place, keeping those activities going. Just keeping regular activities, and then the expansion activities that we’re working on become a little more difficult when you’re not in the environment you’re used to operating in.”

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