Business

After 29 years, Men at Work car wash is leaving downtown Raleigh

Mike Phillips and his crew, mostly men who have served time in prison and are working to improve their lives, have been washing cars and cracking jokes in downtown Raleigh for 29 years.

Now the Men at Work Car Care Center must leave its rented space at the corner of South Saunders and West South streets by June. A developer, South Street Holdings, bought the 0.22-acre property in November for about $402,000, but it’s unclear what will be built there.

Phillips said he won’t find another spot downtown because rent prices have gotten too expensive. He’s considering a location on Fayetteville Road near Garner.

“I’m sad, of course, but I don’t stay sad long,” Phillips said in his raspy, booming voice. “My motto is, ‘Enjoy the time you have.’ My time has been used here and they need me somewhere else now. It’s the next chapter.”

This isn’t the first time Men at Work has been forced out because of new development.

When Phillips, 57, was laid off from a car-washing job at Capital Ford in Raleigh in 1988, he started his own business in a 3,600-square-foot building on Blount and Cabarrus streets. Eighteen years later, he had to leave to make way for high-end condominiums.

He set up shop for a while on West Morgan Street and then moved to South Saunders in 2011. He helped his son, Mike Phillips Jr., open a shoe business next door in 2013, and a year later he expanded his operations to include a barber shop in the same building.

Those businesses will remain on West South Street for now, but Phillips said they too might have to relocate if a developer buys the property.

Decades ago, the area south of downtown Raleigh near Boylan Heights was filled with local businesses, but it fell into disrepair in the 1980s and ’90s. Now it’s seeing new life as part of downtown’s boom.

Last year, Dusty’s Service Center closed after more than 25 years at the corner of West and Lenoir streets. Developer James A. Goodnight, who bought the site in 2014, plans to remodel it for a new tenant.

Lambert Development, a New York company, is building a 12-unit townhome project across the street from Dusty’s. A block away, the company wants to build 42 condominiums that will cost $300,000 to $600,000.

‘Everybody needs a shot’

Most of Phillips’ employees are people few other businesses would be willing to hire.

Bobby Green, who was released from prison last year, said he struggled to find work because of his criminal record. Phillips gave him a chance at Men at Work.

“I’ve been praising God for my job here,” Green said. “It’s been very helpful to me.”

Phillips, who never served time in prison but was convicted of a drug offense, said the work he offers helps keep men out of prison.

“Everybody needs a shot. Everybody makes mistakes,” he said. “You got yours in the closet. Some folks still have meat on those skeletons.”

During the day, music blasts from a stereo system at the shop, punctuated by Phillips’ gravelly shouts and raucous laughter.

“Mike is one of a kind,” said Richard Colvin, who has worked at the car wash since 2010.

For $25, workers hand-wash a customer’s car, clean the tires and rims and vacuum the interior. Larger vehicles such as minivans and trucks cost more.

Customers can also pay for workers to clean a vehicle’s upholstery and carpets, apply wax and scrub emblems and hood ornaments with a toothbrush.

In the past, employees have detailed the vehicles of Charles Shackleford, Jerry Stackhouse and Ronald Flip Murray, among other famous clients.

As Phillips prepares to move his business, he’s helping one of his daughters open a sports bar and restaurant on Tryon Road. It will also employ workers who have criminal records.

Madison Iszler: 919-836-4952; miszler@newsobserver.com

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