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Weekend edition May 03, 2024 | Tom Ballard

Metro Drug Coalition celebrates opening of Phase 2 of The Gateway

An event earlier this week celebrated Karen Pershing's passion and tenacity in bringing a vision that many thought was crazy to fruition.

When Karen Pershing, then Executive Director of the Metro Drug Coalition (MDC), came up with the concept for The Gateway roughly six years ago, we learned at an event earlier this week that many people thought it was a crazy idea.

On Tuesday, individuals in the community joined state and local government officials who packed a room of the building to commemorate her vision for a community center for those recovering from substance abuse. The event was the ribbon cutting for Phase 2 of the building described as “a recovery-oriented sanctuary anchored in the heart of the community.”

That description was not lost on Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon who was one of the featured speakers. She noted the significance of individuals who came to the event “walking on the same sidewalks as those who are homeless or recovering from substance abuse disorders.”

For those not familiar with the location of The Gateway, it is at 530 West 5th Avenue just off Broadway where many of the services for the homeless are offered. Phase 1 of the renovation opened 18 months ago. Since then, MDC has delivered 50,000 services through The Gateway. The space officially dedicated this week includes a coffee shop, gym, and recreation center.

MDC bought the building in 2019, just months before COVID-19 hit. During the height of the pandemic, it was used to house homeless individuals before renovations began. Barber McMurry Architects designed the space, and the renovations were done by Rick Cox Construction.

Webster Bailey, the organization’s new Executive Director who also chaired the capital campaign for the more than $4 million project, served as master of ceremonies for the celebration of both Pershing’s vision and the completion of Phase 2.

“They were pressure washing the patio this morning,” Bailey quipped.

Both the City of Knoxville and Knox County contributed to the campaign. Mayor Kincannon concluded her remarks by saying that The Gateway represents two things: recovery is possible, and “you are not alone” in your journey.

Karen Pershing Speaking to Attendees

Among those paying tribute to Pershing were Commissioner Marie Williams of the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services; David Rausch, Director of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and a former Chief of Police in Knoxville; State Senator Becky Massey; and Knox County District Attorney General Charme Allen.

Williams called Pershing a “legendary trailblazer,” Rausch described her as a “servant leader with a great heart,” Massey said she “was a rockstar at the legislature in Nashville,” and Allen said, “I’m glad that I’m not the only one who thought she was crazy.”

The affection that the speakers felt for Pershing was noticeable as each went over to where she was seated and hugged her after their comments.

After 14 years leading the organization with one brief interruption, Pershing announced earlier this year that she was stepping back from day-to-day management but would continue as MDC’s Director of Grants and Government Relations. During her tenure as Executive Director, the organization grew its staff from three to 18 with an additional five contractors and increased the annual operating budget by 1000 percent.

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