In Southeast Raleigh, dream gets solid start

Staff WriterMarch 13, 2008 

  • Mike Phillips can be reached at (919) 832-2425.

— It's just a gray brick building on a Southeast Raleigh corner, a spot long troubled by drugs and fights.

But Mike Phillips walks through the 15,000-square-foot hall on Hoke Street pumping his fists and yelling, "Woooooo-hoooo!"

He imagines high school dances. Carpentry or plumbing classes during the day. Bingo games for senior citizens. Karate lessons for children. Job training. Help with the GED. Community plays.

All he needs is a few volunteers. Oh, and $5,000 a month.

Phillips, 48, who runs Men at Work Car Care Center downtown, has rented a warehouse with the idea of opening a community center on a rough corner.

"I took every dime I had," he said. "I'm like those Texas hold 'em players."

Phillips seems too tough to fail. He kept his carwash alive for two decades despite persistent droughts and -- harder still -- forced relocation, never losing his constant smile or booming voice.

In 2005, Phillips had to move from his longtime corner on East Cabarrus Street to make way for pricey downtown condominiums. He spent more than a year washing cars on a Southeast Raleigh street corner, making do with a tank full of water and a generator.

"When I was on the street washing cars, I said if I ever get out of here, I'm going to stick my neck out to help people," said Phillips.

Late in 2006, he found a spot for Men At Work on West Hargett Street and painted his logo on the side: a flexing bicep in red and yellow.

Early this year he rented the empty building, once a church, for a reduced rate of $2,500 a month, soon to double.

He knocked out a subceiling and found a working sprinkler system underneath. The place needs new bathrooms, and the fire marshal recommended more work before he got approval for bigger crowds, but the main meeting area is good almost as is.

Lonnette Williams, chairwoman of the Central Citizens Advisory Council, liked the idea of job training in that building and had spoken with Wake Technical Community College about the idea.

Phillips' track record of hiring ex-convicts at his carwash, she said, would give him an edge.

Phillips said has already pulled men off the street to do demolition work.

The area's South Park Neighborhood Association might be able to receive city money to help, she said.

Phillips named the building Cheytoria's after his oldest daughter, who just graduated from Georgia Institute of Technology and is getting a master's degree.

Phillips has three other children, and he has organized dance parties for them, sometimes drawing 600 people. With these events at night, he said, he can pay for the building and give teens in Southeast Raleigh a safe place to meet.

Some people scoff at choosing Hoke Street, he said. Police reports total 43 at the address since 2001, most of them drug-related.

Early this week, someone stole the flowers Phillips planted by a new fountain out front.

"Sometimes," he said, "all you can do is laugh."

josh.shaffer@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4818

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