In its heyday in the 1980s, STAR House sheltered up to 25 men with alcohol dependency who had just come out of Floyd County Jail detox and needed a place to go.
On Friday, its two male inhabitants were helping clear out the more than 12,000-square-foot building at 212 N. Fifth Ave. to get it ready for the market.
After 48 years of honoring the legacy of Rome’s Judge Richard Lee “Dicky” Starnes Jr., STAR House will be reborn as a new recovery center in Lindale with the proceeds from the sale of the building originally built as a tractor dealership.
“They’ve been doing good work for a long time,” Davies Homeless Shelters Executive Director Devon Smyth said Friday of STAR House, which opened the year Judge Starnes died at 35 after battling polio most of his life. “We promised the Dicky Starnes board we’d continue its mission of addiction recovery with the help of LivingProof Recovery when the board came to us in the fall asking us if we would take it over. We were incredibly honored they even thought of us.”
Dicky Starnes Board Chairman John Burnes said Friday the board felt it was necessary to hand over the deed to the building after years of financial hardship became even more insurmountable when the United Way of Rome-Floyd County informed them they would not be getting any assistance in 2020.
United Way funds represented more than half of the nonprofit’s budget, Burnes said.
“The STAR House was founded with the blessing of Judge Dicky Starnes because there was a problem with homeless alcoholics on the streets of Rome. Sound familiar?” said Burnes, who served on the United Way board for about six years in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “We’d been operating it pretty successfully for years, but then the nature of alcoholism changed and it became multiple addictions. We discovered we weren’t equipped to handle the complex issues we were being presented with.”
STAR House Executive Director Wayne Smithson had been running the program without a salary since 1982 and the building’s caretaker was being compensated with only room and board.
“It was a labor of love for sure,” Burnes said of Smithson. “You don’t do this kind of work for the money. You’ll find that a lot of people working in rehab are also alcoholics. It’s their way of giving back. But the last two or three years were very tough financially. We put a lot of personal money into it to keep the roof repaired and the bills paid.”
At first, Smyth and LivingProof Executive Director Claudia Hamilton intended on fixing up the three-story building sitting in the heart of the River District and partnering to use it as a shelter for men struggling with a variety of dependencies.
But it didn’t take them long to realize that the decrepit flesh-colored structure with bricked-over windows and electrical wires strung across its face didn’t quite fit into the city’s vision of a vibrant arts district just across the Oostanaula River.
“In the light of the redevelopment effort for the River District and the corridor there, we’ve always sought to be good neighbors and we understand that having that kind of housing in that corridor is not being as good of a neighbor as we could be,” Smyth said. “We decided that the most responsible thing to do is sell the property and reinvest that money in Floyd County.”
Smyth, Hamilton and several other Rome nonprofits recently attended an event called Lindale Recovers. There they heard from residents about their needs and desires for the community.
“Many of them said they felt isolated being off the bus line and experienced barriers to employment and other things that would provide them with a different way of living,” Smyth explained. “One of the main things missing there is a recovery opportunity. So our hope is to find some property in Lindale where we can house people returning into the community from the court system and work with them to meet their needs.”
Hamilton said Friday as she prepared to roll up her sleeves and help clean out the STAR House that she is incredibly excited about this project she knows will change lives.
“I always want to acknowledge the trail blazers that came before and Wayne Smithson was the real trailblazer,” Hamilton said of the Alcoholics Anonymous-based STAR House program pioneer. “Recovery and sheltering services are always evolving. They can always be more creative and more inclusive. But they put down the recovery roots in Rome in the 1970s and that’s awesome.”
Burnes hadn’t been aware of the plans to sell the building, but said he wishes Smyth and Hamilton the best in their endeavors, adding he estimates the building is worth about $400,000.
Across Fifth Avenue at Yellow Door Antiques and Art, store owner Nedra Manners said she was happy to know she will have a new neighbor in the near future.
“If they renovate it, I think it would be a fabulous little boutique hotel,” said Manners, who opened her store in 2015 and anxiously awaits the transformation of the area the city has promised. “It needs to be something that brings business down here and not another office. I know somebody who wants to buy it already.”