A two-story hotel on East Route 66 has led a full life over the past six decades.
The hotel — originally known as The Crown — first opened in 1967. It was a favorite stop for travelers alongside the Crown Railroad Cafe before eventually turning into a Howard Johnson.
After 60 years, the motel closed its doors to the public in March. The closing doesn’t mark the end of The Crown’s history, but a new beginning. Soon, dozens of Flagstaff’s families, medically vulnerable and senior citizens will call it home.
Flagstaff Shelter Services (FSS) purchased the Howard Johnson hotel for just over $6 million earlier this month — a sweeping achievement that gives the organization the ability to provide emergency shelter for an estimated 1,000 people each year.
The 72,000-square-foot, 58-room hotel will be life-changing for some and lifesaving for others, according to FSS Director Ross Schaefer.
“Housing is healthcare and it works,” Schaefer said. “For us to be able to offer this space to 58 units is a big, big deal for this community.”
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FSS first turned to hotels at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Shelters are inherently tight spaces — especially in Flagstaff — and the virus was rampant in congregate settings. But homelessness doesn’t simply stop being a problem during the pandemic, and they were scrambling to find a way to house the most vulnerable, to keep them safe and alive.
FSS had no choice but to adapt, and soon they turned to hotels; three hotels, including two in the downtown area, quickly transformed into emergency housing. No one knew they were there and it kept people safe. They saw zero COVID-positive cases for months.
It was also “insanely expensive,” though, with Schaefer estimating they spent “hundreds of thousands of dollars” each month renting rooms.
The success soon spurred the idea of purchasing a hotel to continue on a larger, more permanent and financially sustainable scale.
“This is an investment in us — this is an investment in this organization,” Schaefer said. “We’re now putting that money directly into the people.”
“This was the dream,” she added. “It’s investing in our clients’ future and investing in our community.”
The funding came from the Arizona Department of Housing’s access to $40 million in State Recovery Funds allocated through the American Rescue Plan Act. The money was specifically set aside for transforming hotels into emergency housing. Additional funds also came from the Forest Highlands Foundation and the Arizona Diamondbacks Foundation.
“By converting existing buildings in rural communities to housing, as Flagstaff Shelter Services did in this case with ADOH funding, services get to the people who need them much quicker than by building from the ground up,” Arizona Department of Housing Director Tom Simplot said. “This is the first of what we anticipate being many successful conversion projects in rural Arizona.”
Residents will be prioritized based on need and vulnerability. The Crown will provide the same comprehensive services available in traditional congregate settings, such as meals, medical care, behavioral health and rehousing services. FSS care coordinators will be on-site 24 hours per day, seven days per week. Some of the most utilized community partners will also have an on-site presence, including Native Americans for Community Action, North Country HealthCare, The Guidance Center, Southwest Behavioral & Health Services and Flagstaff Family Food Center.
Eventually, the site will transition to provide permanent supportive housing to help Flagstaff’s critical affordable housing shortage.
Schaefer said that likely won’t be for a few years, though.
The hotel will return to the former name of The Crown as a nod to the original landmark property. There’s also plans to upgrade the facility and the surrounding property.
“To be able to put it in the hands of an organization we know is going to be a long-term warden of this property and going to do some work to restore it back to its formal glory…I really love that,” said FSS board member David Hayward, who is also a developer and the chair of Flagstaff’s Heritage Preservation Commission. “Getting to see folks move in here is going to be fantastic.”
Some exterior and interior changes are in the works, such as filling in the pool, improving accessibility and making the units more suitable for long-term housing by adding kitchenettes.
Nothing will change with The Crown Railroad Cafe. The Route 66 staple has no plans to move. It’s a part of the community, just as Schaefer and countless others with FSS hope The Crown becomes.
“We want to make sure people know our intentions is to create homes for 58 households and that, in turn, will lift up the community,” Schaefer said. “This is lifesaving and life-changing for people and our community.”