Lauren Coleman is on a mission.
For years, that mission was to build a high-end, luxury boutique motel catering to young-ish, cool travelers who value unique, authentic experiences over run-of-the-mill or cliché. It would be the kind of place where locally sourced art and amenities adorned the rooms, and customers could buy those newly discovered treasures before checking out and jetting back home.
But somewhere along the way to achieving her goal, fate, opportunity and circumstance collided on West Colfax Avenue in Lakewood.
Armed with a business plan, pitch deck and enough enthusiasm for several average humans, Coleman set out to purchase a motel, kicking her dream into gear.
The problem, she soon learned, was that bankers weren’t exactly tripping over themselves to loan her the kind of money it takes to buy a dilapidated motel and turn it into a hipster paradise.
“I was really naive, which worked in my favor,” she says. “Because it’s a lot of work to get into commercial real estate and finance — it’s all just rich old white dudes, and I was a 27-year-old with no experience. Why would they even take a meeting with me?”
She said she probably pitched the idea 3,000 times to random people while trying to get meetings with banks that wouldn’t sit down with her. But perseverance finally (kind of) won out. Coleman said she almost had financing for the purchase and redevelopment of the White Swan in place — and then the pandemic hit.
So, she decided to make a pivot of epic proportions.
By this time, banks weren’t lending to inexperienced 30-year-olds for hospitality projects. They were, however, willing to discuss financing the motel if it could be part of community revitalization and used as a safe place to transition homeless families to more permanent housing.
She knew the county was already using several of the local motels for de-facto housing for the homeless through its voucher program. So, she negotiated a letter of intent with Jefferson County to show proof of potential income to lenders.
Coleman understood that taking the interim step of using the motel to provide a stable bridge for homeless families for the next three or four years would allow her to secure the financing she needed to become the owner of the White Swan.
It also made good business sense, because the motel’s location in a blighted Opportunity Zone comes with benefits like state income tax credits for capital investments that could be a big help to a young developer.
But she says what really sold her on the idea was the opportunity to really help people.
“I realized that Jefferson County is placing people who are experiencing homelessness in these motels, but there’s no efficiency of operation,” she said. “There are no standards. They’re placing someone in these rooms — and I saw the rooms — I was in a full hazmat suit (there were) needles on the floors, feces on the wall, blood on the mattresses.”
Those conditions were what Coleman found in her own motel once she’d purchased it and started renovations. And although she said she can’t speak to the cleanliness of other Colfax motels, she’d venture to guess many, if not all of them, are in the same shape.
Coleman added that she finds it hard to believe people in those circumstances are expected to get their lives together because they have a “roof over their head.”
She’s not pointing the finger at any city, county or any entity.
“It’s a massive problem that everyone talks about, and I just saw this as one slice of a way to help,” she said.
So, she wants to commit to hot water, cold water, clean towels, clean mattresses, paying the utilities, paving the parking lot, hiring security and all of the other necessities to earn the county’s business and provide a necessary service.
The last few months have seen Coleman, who’s very pregnant and expecting her first child in a matter of weeks, overseeing the renovation of 18 of the motel’s 24 rooms. Six of the rooms will continue to be rented out to long-term residents who passed required screening to be able to stay.
In December, the necessary red tape should be cleared for homeless families to move in. The idea is not to create a long-term rental situation for them — but instead, to give those families an opportunity for some stability as they continue to access wrap-around services (medical care, counseling, employment assistance etc.) before transitioning into more permanent housing.
According to Kelli Barker, Regional Homeless Coordinator for Jeffco’s Human Services Department, the county was interested in the idea of providing families with a more stable situation than they had prevously been able to offer by offering voucher rooms for shorter periods of time. But she said they will continue to work with other motels in the city.
“We’re kind of piloting this model of master leasing the 18 rooms at the White Swan for one year,” she said. “Lauren renovated the rooms to a safe and habitable standard, which is something we require.”
Barker said the county is in the final stages of executing the master lease and the goal is for their Homeless Navigation Program and the CYF (Children, Youth and Families) program, to begin placing families in the White Swan beginning Dec. 1. She said during their stay at the motel, the county’s case management teams will be working with the families to help them move onto a pathway to stable housing.
The county considers stays at the White Swan to be “Bridge Housing” that will be in the 30-60 day range. Because of strong regulations for federal funds that don’t allow for master lease agreements, funding from the county side was secured through Jeffco Connections, the county’s collaborative management program.
The end game
Is a dream deferred a dream denied?
Coleman says absolutely not. While she runs the White Swan as a space to help people get back on their feet for the next few years, she hopes to invest in other amenities to help the community — which may very well include a dedicated shelter.
And in five years? Well, the mission remains.
“The plan and the end vision still exists. I will build a very high-end, luxury motel,” she says.
To build the dream, Coleman will raze the current property. In its place, the luxury motel (still with just 25 rooms — albeit a lot fancier) will rise.
Coleman says she has faith the Lakewood of tomorrow will be the right balance of holding on to the spirit of the town’s mid-century magic and the possibility of what’s yet to come.