ELKHORN — Proponents of a domestic violence shelter to serve Walworth County are preparing to restart their effort, buoyed by research showing that the facility would be a positive addition to downtown Elkhorn.
But neighbors are ready to continue their fight, too, to block what they perceive as a threat to attract violence into the neighborhood.
The issue was presented to Elkhorn city officials last fall, and was postponed after opponents raised objections to the shelter.
Now, the group seeking to open the facility is laying plans to renew its push for a city permit needed to transform a former medical clinic into a safe haven for victims of domestic violence.
New Beginnings, as the group is known, has surveyed other shelters across Wisconsin and found that none of them have experienced increased violence in the neighborhoods where they operate.
Janis Scharnott, president of the group’s board of directors, said the statewide survey should put to rest any fears that the Elkhorn shelter would create such problems for its neighbors.
“We’re hoping this will calm some fears,” Scharnott said.
The matter could be back in front of the Elkhorn Plan Commission at its April 18 meeting, with the commission issuing a recommendation to the City Council on whether to approve the shelter’s permit.
Opponents of the domestic violence facility say they remain unconvinced, and they plan to continue lobbying city officials to deny the permit.
“We have grave concerns over our safety,” neighbor Julie Taylor said.
New Beginnings, also known as the Association for the Prevention of Family Violence, is seeking to establish an emergency shelter inside a former medical clinic at 20 N. Church St. The shelter would house up to a dozen women and children who are fleeing their perpetrators of abuse.
It would be the first such shelter in Walworth County, and it would allow New Beginnings to serve clients without having to send them to shelters as far away as Madison or Milwaukee.
The former medical clinic is not only being donated by Aurora Health Care at no cost, its downtown location is situated across from the Elkhorn police department and is centrally located near social agencies, churches and other facilities that would be helpful to clients.
New Beginnings currently serves about 700 families a year.
According to a report prepared for Elkhorn city officials, the organization surveyed 35 domestic violence shelters across Wisconsin and found that such shelters are no more dangerous than restaurants, taverns and other common business operations.
No neighbor has ever been hurt and no nearby property has ever been damaged because of a shelter, the report states. One neighbor opposed to a shelter called to complain every day, but then the report concludes: “They stopped calling when they realized the shelter caused no problems.”
Neighbors of the New Beginnings site have voiced fears that the facility would bring violence to the area, would create traffic congestion, and would harm property values.
But the New Beginnings report asserts that shelters reduce crime in a community, reduce homelessness, improve property values and broaden public understanding about preventing domestic violence.
Taylor said she is unconvinced by the pro-shelter survey, because opponents have done their own research about the effect of domestic violence facilities.
“I know what we have,” she said of the research.
Opponents last fall presented the city with a petition signed by more than 100 people urging denial of the city permit.
That promoted New Beginnings supporters to circulate their own petition showing community support for the shelter. Petition organizer Cathy Willis said support has been building.
Willis said she is confident that Elkhorn city officials will recognize the importance of confronting domestic violence and helping victims.
“At the end of the day, we have big hearts around here,” she said. “That’s what we’re here for — to help each other. We’re not here to turn our backs.”
Taylor said opponents would come out again to urge city officials to reject the shelter proposal.
Scharnott said some opponents are digging in their heels and will never acknowledge that they are wrong about the shelter. But if the facility is allowed to open, Scharnott said, the critics will see that they are wrong.
“We will prove that we can be good neighbors,” she said. “And it will be a success.”