When Joe Ader looks down the aisles of Cassano’s Import Foods, he doesn’t see sausages, cheeses and hard-to-find pasta sauces. He sees office space for shelter workers, rows of beds and an area for homeless children to play.
“This is a big deal,” he said Wednesday afternoon, standing in the larger-than-life grocery store hallway wrapped in green, white and red paint. “It’s important for us to get this right.”
In just two months, he’ll no longer have to imagine. In December, Ader, the director of Open Doors, the 24-hour family shelter run by Family Promise of Spokane, and the rest of the nonprofit staff hope to move into the 18,000-square-foot building on the corner of Mission Avenue and Napa Street, where the beloved Italian grocery store has sat for about 10 years.
With them they’ll bring all of the fixings that come with running a successful family homeless shelter. On the main floor will be office space, a play area, dining room and full-service kitchen. In the massive basement, once renovations are complete, an overnight sleeping facility for up to 80 families – 30 more than the nonprofit was able to serve at its previous location in the Bethel AME Church in South Perry.
On the top floor, depending on when tenants move, there will be temporary housing in the building’s eight apartment units, two of which will be shower areas.
“We’re all really excited,” Ader said. “A majority of our staff have actually lived as homeless. It provides us a unique background.”
The move was finalized these past few months just as Cassano’s was looking to vacate. The store and building’s owner, Carl Naccarato, said he was too old and the space simply too big to stay.
In the years since it moved from its original location on East Sprague Avenue, where it opened in 1922, to the new building, sales and services have slowed as the mom-and-pop store struggled to compete with big grocery stores. First, Naccarato cut the amount of items the store carried, until it almost exclusively focused on Italian goods. Gradually the offerings shrunk, so much that patrons would no longer walk through the front door, since the area is unused. Instead they entered from the back.
Cassano’s will close, at least for a little while, until the owner finds a new shop in a new neighborhood.
“It’s too huge,” the 68-year-old said as he pushed a chunk of turkey into a food slicer, creating thin cuts of deli meat. “But the thing about us is we’ve been around for so long. We’ll be good tenants no matter where we go.”
While Naccarato was upstairs running the shop as normal, Ader and Steve Allen, the executive director of Family Promise, led shelter workers on a tour of the building, originally built in the 1940s when it housed a drug store and soda fountain.
They stood and stared in wonder at what could be – imagining what their office might look like, or visualizing the sheer numbers of beds that could fit in the building, compared to the last location that each night had to turn people away.
In the basement, Ader took a group of about 10 staffers through the winding hallways and large open rooms.
The biggest hurdle, he explained to the group, was the amount of time and money necessary to knock all of the walls out and install an up-to-date sprinkler system, which could take up to a year. He hoped donations would help pay for the cost, and the labor covered by local unions and volunteers would speed it up.
But work aside, they were all excited for the next chapter in their new space.
As for Naccarato, he’s been keeping an eye on popular up-and-coming neighborhoods for a new Cassano’s location. He likes East Sprague, which was recently repaved, rebuilt and reimagined as a walk-friendly hub, perfect for small businesses. He also likes North Monroe, which underwent the same treatment. And he has a fondness for South Perry.
But if he had to pick, he’d say Sprague is where his heart lies, and where his business is likely to return. It’s where he worked at Cassano’s, first as an employee, then as a young owner.
“I’d like to be in a neighborhood,” he said. “I’m not really open to a strip mall or anything like that. Something with character and something that fits with what I do.”