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Interview with Charlie Hammerman :The Disability Opportunity Fund and the world’s first fully accessible hotel – The Schoolhouse Hotel
What influenced your decision to start the Disability Opportunity Fund?
From our perspective, what the disability market needed for growth in 2005/2006 was finance and capital to address the public policy needs of that market – housing, community centers, education, more employment etc.
DOF is a not-for-profit, a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) certified by the US Treasury Department. We are one of 1000 CDFIs and there’s just a handful of us that focus on disabilities as our mission. With that exclusive disability focus, we’ve identified that there are needs in the disability world and that capital is necessary to be able to meet those needs.
What are the most prevalent needs identified? Do you work with organizations only or directly with people with disabilities?
We work with both. But we do financing more on an institutional level with organizations or when we do work with individuals, it’s typically individuals who come together to create their own organization or their own entity to own a house or similar initiative.
We started with housing for people with disabilities because it was the easiest to tackle. In 2008, housing was the number one challenge from the standpoint of who was willing to finance it. CDFIs finance what a bank or traditional financing won’t, so the real goal was not for us to compete with the banks, but to teach the banks that they should be doing that type of financing. In 2008, we were really the go-to organization for housing. Today, banks have learned that housing for people with disabilities is a good business.
Education is the second category. When we got involved in financing schools in 2007, people didn’t really didn’t understand Autism or they didn’t think that children with Autism could be educated or employed in the way that they are now. We became one of the financiers of schools, a special needs school started by parent groups, a very specialized group and no one else would take that chance. Fast forward a decade later. Now many traditional financing institutions like banks are financing special needs schools. So, we were early movers.
Employment is the third category. There is the question: can people with disabilities really be employed? Well, there are two aspects to it, especially here in the US. The policies for many years were that if you work, you lose your government benefits. Well, clearly that has changed. So therefore, we were an early mover of trying to finance and support companies that wanted to hire people with disabilities and wanted to take that chance. Again, banks and investors really didn’t understand it, but we were there. Fast forward to today. Mainstream venture capital and social impact companies are very much involved. So again, we feel like we’ve done good work, because we took risks that nobody else was willing to take. And now everyone else is sort of catching up with us.
Do you now collaborate with banks on financing projects aimed at people with disabilities?
One: In our funding stream, a lot of our funding stream does actually come from banks and financial institutions, because here in the United States, there is a Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) obligation so they will lend money to us at low rates, as long as we put it back into the community, and, to us, it’s our community of people with disabilities. We currently have over $40 million that we’ve borrowed from banks and other institutions, and they’re entrusting it to us because they know there is a market and that we know what we’re doing, so for over 13 years, we’ve brought them along for the ride. Now, they are also getting involved in projects, and because they have much bigger balance sheets, they’re able to take on some of the bigger projects.
Two: Look at the advertising that’s been done and you’ll see Bank of America and other financial institutions incorporate people with disabilities in their advertisement. From a marketing standpoint, we finally have reached that moment. This is the time that not just banks, but other companies are finally realizing that disability is bankable, that they’re marketable, and people with disabilities are placed in advertisements at all levels. There’s still a lot of work to do but we definitely think our partners in the mainstream financial institutions have come a long, long way and we’re pleased that they are at the table doing this alongside us.
Inclusive employment. How does your organization assist with ensuring that people with disabilities get employed?
When we provide financing for an organization, if it’s for something focused on vocational training or job placement for people with disabilities, we will demand to get statistics about the number of people with disabilities they hire as part of our loan document. A perfect example of employment of persons with disabilities is Rising Tide Carwash in Parkland, Florida. A father and son started a car wash where all of the employees have a disability and they are a very successful business. They report back to us with the number of young men and women who are working at the carwash, their disability status, income levels and wages and we track that.
We actually do direct investing in companies that employ people with disabilities and become shareholders of some of these companies. One is called Ultranauts where 75 to 80% of their workforce has some form of neuro diversity. When they started with us, they had about 31 employees, now they have up to 90 employees. There are amazing stories of some people who were once on government welfare, and now are making 50,000- $70,000 a year at their jobs. We just invested in them, we took our capital, we believed in them. And this is a great example of the way we deploy our capital to help employment for people with disabilities.
In the first quarter of 2022, we will be opening and operating the world’s first fully accessible hotel in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. We will be hiring people with disabilities to work there. So, we’re not only ensuring that people with disabilities are hired through our capital, we also hire them through our actual operations.
Would you say that awareness about the needs of people with disabilities has improved over the years?
Yes, absolutely and there’s a very basic reason for that, and that’s why we started DOF – supply is not keeping up with demand. Disability is not a fad or a gig economy of some sort. Disability does not discriminate socio-economically or geographically, between race, gender or anything else. If you’re going to look at it purely from an economic standpoint, and you take away all of the discourse about disabilities, you’ll see that it’s just a market that will continue to grow and grow.
Autism was a little ‘a’, now it’s a big ‘A’, and for the last 15 years, it has exploded into acceptance and parents are not going to want institutionalized settings for their children anywhere in the world.
Employment. You know, now all of a sudden, a day habilitation, sitting around doing nothing, and being in a sheltered workshop all day is not acceptable – real employment, real opportunities are needed. There’s a labor shortage around the whole globe right now so it’s nice to have a whole new category of people who are willing to work and can work. We were just a little bit ahead of our time but now I think everyone is catching up to the fact that this has to be a public/private partnership. Taking a private mentality to a public sector problem. And that’s why we created DOF in the first place. We’re not saying we can do it without government benefits, or the government shouldn’t be involved, it’s just the government is limited in what it can do so bring the private sector to the table and between the two worlds you’re going to get more supply of the things that people will need.
Are government officials open to working in partnership with DOF?
Yes, because imagine that you’re the government agency, where resources are shrinking, and you have private entities coming in to say, we don’t want money, we’re actually we’re bringing money to the table, come to the table and be our partner. We ask the government to cut the red tape; you have to let parents be creative with their models and let them do what they want to do and start crazy ideas. We ask the government, as long as it’s consistent with public policy, and if we’re willing to fund it, then why are you fighting it? And they’ve come a long, long, way. There is still be a long way to go but that’s why we’re excited about what we do because we have to continue to change the mindset of everyone. So therefore, we can just increase the opportunities for everybody.
What has been DOF’s main success story to date?
This is on 3 levels: We started out by trying to introduce disabilities to the CDFI world and vice versa and we’ve done that very, very well.
Public policy – housing, employment, education. We’ve watched so much positives go on in the last 15 years, and there’s so much more we can do, especially internationally, right? Because there are obviously many areas internationally that are still trying to catch up with some of the policies here in the US and we can learn a little bit from some international programs going on that are creative as well.
The hotel in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, is really the pièce de résistance. This is where we walked into a community and there was a perfect combination: them wanting resources and us wanting to deploy resources and push the envelope one more time. We’re putting together a showcase for the rest of the world, and we’re calling it the first fully accessible hotel in the world. We also want to be humble about it, because we know that we’re about to do something no one’s done before, we know that people with disabilities are going to show up and correct us. We think we’ve thought of everything but they will say: Well, what about this, and that, and we’re not going to fight them. This is literally a teaching exercise. It’s a showcase for the rest of the world and we’ve already started to make relationships with what we would call mainstream hotels, just like we did with the mainstream banks 15 years ago. So right now, while the rest of the organization continues to do its thing, we have the lending and we have the equity investments, our prized possession right now is our relationship with White Sulphur Springs, and then clearly our biggest investment, our biggest, exciting new thing that’s never ever been tried before, is this hotel.
We’re converting a 109-year-old building that was once a high school into a hotel but we are not changing the character of the building. It isn’t about knocking it down and putting up a traditional hotel like a Holiday Inn or Hampton Inn, which would have been easy to do. We’re trying to maintain that building, which meant less rooms, taking a huge gymnasium and turning it into a wedding/conference venue, figuring out where to put a restaurant, a bar and everything else, all ADA compliant within this old building, but being DOF, we do things that no one else has ever done before and the result will be the fully-accessible Schoolhouse Hotel.
We consulted with experts through every aspect of the design phase – experts from the visually impaired world, from the hard of hearing/deaf world, from the IDD world, physical disabilities, etc., and we’ve incorporated their recommendations in there. The result will be less rooms, because we want bigger rooms and to make sure that everything is fully accessible. No matter who shows up, wheelchairs, scooter, or whatever they may show up with, there’ll always be a room for that person. We are installing an elevator system in a 109-year-old building that never had an elevator, and we’re actually taking it all the way to the roof top bar.
We invest in technology companies that serve people with disabilities and we’re bringing a lot of technology into the hotel that’s going to make people comfortable. We’re working really hard to try to think of everything. We’re coming up with something very creative with the bar, a three-sided bar. Not only will it have the usual tall stools that you’d find in regular bars but one side of the bar will be lowered. Someone in a wheelchair can come straight up to the bar and feel comfortable, and if their companion is not in a wheelchair, there will be a chair right next to them at the low level. The second aspect is the floor, which will be modulated so the bartender won’t be looking down at the person in the wheelchair but will be at eye level with them.
If somebody checks in and they have hearing limitations, there will be an iPad right there at check-in, at the restaurant, bar and at other places in the hotel, where, with one push of a button, within seconds, they’ll have a sign interpreter available to them. If someone drives into town, and they’ve had their service dog in their car for hours, there’ll be an area immediately at the front door, so service animals can have a place to relieve themselves.
For family members with autism, we are taking that to another level. What was once the school’s basement will be a fitness center, a conference room and a meditation/sensory room. It is nice for families to know that for a family member with autism in a new environment, located in the same building is a sensory room for their use.
We’re catering to every type of disability. We’re taking a lot of pride in the online reservation system where there’s going to be questionnaires to gauge how we can make your stay more comfortable. All considerations will be there. If you have someone who is allergic to a specific type of pillow, if they want to tell us what room lighting would be better etc., we hope to have customized experiences for all of the people who are going to be coming to us. And, we are not just making the building accessible, but we’re going to have people with disabilities as part of the staff. We’re trying to think of everything and we will make a mistake but we will fix the mistakes and make the hotel the best possible.
Why White Sulphur Springs?
White Sulphur Springs, a city in Greenbrier County, West Virginia, has a population of under 2,500. They offer intimate experiences, but they also have a lot to offer in terms of activities. There is Lewisburg airport only 15 minutes away that gets direct flights from Chicago and Washington DC. There are cultural activities within 15 to 20 minutes from here so we’re prepping the community that provides all of these activities and attractions because we want to make sure they’re accessible. The people who come here won’t be sitting in their room watching TV all day. We want them to get out and go off-roading, kayaking, on hikes and play adaptive golf. While we are not going to accomplish everything they want, we’re going to try to anticipate everything as best we can. Everyone should walk away from the experience recognizing that we did our best and tried to accomplish everything they expected.
We are engaging the community and they embrace the hotel that is to come. Everyone on the project is local and have ties to the school for many generations – grandparents and parents were once students here. For many of them, the transformation of the school into the hotel is an emotional experience and they are already visualizing, with a lot of anticipation, what it’s going to look like. We are injecting oxygen into a building that has been special to a community for many years. Their annual Dandelion Festival which was once held in the old school gymnasium, and has nothing to do with disabilities, will be hosted here on the same stage that was built 80 years ago – the very same stage, just freshened up a bit. This hotel will be part of the community!
Cindy Bennett, who once attended the school will be the hotel manager. Adeyemi Allen, the Executive Chef, also attended this school and was a star athlete. He has been working as an executive chef in North Carolina and now he’s back and is excited about this opportunity.
We are also involved with the community on a quietly philanthropic level. A few months ago, we received a phone call from a family whose 19-year-old daughter went hunting and was left paralyzed when a tree limb fell on her. After rehab was finished, it was time to come home but she was in a wheelchair and her house was not fully accessible. We donated the materials that was needed to make it accessible and more importantly, our subcontractors donated their time, taking days off from working at the hotel. They descended on to this house and within two weeks it was ready for her when she came home. But will this 19-year-old ever going to be able to go hunting again? Sure enough, a company customized a wheelchair for her so she can enjoy the outdoors again with the big tires that were put on it, she can handle the woods.
Our involvement with the community continued with the distribution of school supply packs in August. Combining a bit of marketing in this situation, where the hotel will be in the building that was once a school, we gave away hundreds of school supplies to children in the community.
The Schoolhouse Hotel will be a showcase for the rest of the world and fully embraced by the community of White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.