Car wash on the street

Displaced by downtown condos, an 18-year-old business makes the best of its temporary location

Staff WriterDecember 13, 2005 

Mike Phillips spent 18 years buffing cars on a fringy corner of downtown. He painted his business bright red and yellow, played gospel music and hired ex-convicts on the mend -- brightening South Blount Street in years when few would linger there.

But downtown changed, and it didn't take Phillips along. The corner of South Blount and East Cabarrus streets now belongs to Palladium Plaza condominiums, and Men At Work car wash will soon be a memory underneath a $389,000 unit.

Evicted, Phillips migrated two blocks east to Bloodworth Street and set up behind H&H Market, where a smaller crew washes cars outdoors in the December chill.

"Now I know how it feels to be homeless," said Phillips, 46, warming his head under a knit cap. "It gets you tough. It gets you close to the Lord."

Small businesses like Men At Work are an unintended casualty of Raleigh's downtown progress.

Even if Phillips could find an empty lot suitable for a downtown car wash, there is little chance he could afford it.

Last month, his was one in a cluster of downtown parcels that sold for $1.2 million.

"That's the challenge," said Brad Thompson, co-chair of the Southeast Raleigh Alliance. "As we transition, we want to keep some of the character that's there. But it's hard to find something that fits his affordability."

Phillips' operation has grown low-rent by necessity.

Each day, he brings a tank of water attached to his Ford pickup. He runs a generator in the empty lot behind H&H Market, and he keeps his vacuum strapped to a telephone pole with a bungee cord.

He steers his customers between a set of orange cones on a South Bloodworth Street corner.

Phillips can't help but laugh at the sight, and at his predicament.

"I've been helping folks along the way as long as I can remember," he said. "Now, I'm screaming, 'Help me!' "

He harbors no hard feelings. Progress Energy let him stay on as long as it could before the land changed hands.

"He's been a good tenant," said Marty Clayton, Progress' community relations manager. "There's not really much we can do. The face of downtown is no doubt changing."

But to Phillips, a customer base built over 18 years still lives in neighborhoods to the south. Move to Capital Boulevard, where he grudgingly scouted some sites, and he loses all of that.

The new suit-and-tie types downtown just spell more business. If he could find some land nearby -- anyplace where he could put a new building and save his crew's freezing hands -- Men At Work could keep working.

Some of his employees moved on. "They couldn't take the toughness," Phillips said. "You've got to get tough."

It takes about 30 minutes for his remaining two of three workers to wash, vacuum and shampoo a car, and other than the sidewalk, there isn't anyplace for a customer to wait. Phillips sends people to Big Ed's -- about three blocks away -- for a cup of coffee.

While he once worked until 7 or 8 at night, Men At Work now quits when the sun goes down.

His wife worries. Phillips does not. Downtown, he says, is just a little tough right now.

Staff writer Josh Shaffer can be reached at 829-4818 or

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