Roanoke Boxing Gym Puts Up Fight As City Seeks To Evict Club from City-Owned Building

Melrose Athletic Club, which runs Champ’s Gym, is in a legal battle with the city, which insists the group vacate a former Southeast Roanoke fire station.

Thomas Zelrick, 19, at left, gets coaching from Monte Dunnaville, 29, a professional fighter, at Champ's Gym on Aug 22. PHOTO BY HENRI GENDREAU FOR THE ROANOKE RAMBLER

Roanoke is moving to evict a boxing gym from a city-owned building after the club put up a fight to stay.

The Melrose Athletic Club, which runs Champ’s Gym, is in a legal battle with the city, which insists the group vacate a former Southeast Roanoke fire station after its lease expired at the end of November.

After the club asked a judge this month to halt the city from carrying out a “self-help repossession” — essentially changing the locks on the building — the city on Monday filed a formal eviction order against the nonprofit club in Roanoke City General District Court; a hearing is scheduled in early September.

Last fall, the city opted not to renew a three-year lease with the gym, which has occupied the Jamison Avenue property since 2016. (Before then, it operated out of a facility off Melrose Avenue.) Instead, City Council sought proposals for leasing or purchasing the building, which was built in 1911 and needs significant repairs.

One proposal came from the nonprofit REACH, which wants to turn the building into a community center and economic development hub. It’s not clear if there were others.

Marc Nelson, the city’s economic development director, said bids for the property are “in a holding pattern” until the legal issues with the gym are resolved. He said the city would decline to release bid information under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.

The Melrose Athletic Club did not submit a proposal, according to president Victor Banks, whose uncle Earnest “Champ” Cabbler founded the gym 50 years ago. That’s because the gym maintains that the city did not give proper notice when ending its lease.

Around the same time last year when the city declined to renew the club’s lease, the city was helping another boxing gym, the nonprofit Boxfit, secure a lease to a city-owned facility, the former Norwich Recreation Center.

La’Torie Woodberry, who founded Boxfit, had run a summer boxing program out of Champ’s Gym called Boxing and Brawling. Banks wondered if the city thought the gyms were the same, but city officials maintain they never conflated the groups.

When Banks’s grievance came up at City Council, though, Council members appeared confused and expressed a desire to help Banks’s gym find a home as well.

Melvin Hill, an attorney who is representing the club, inquired about that possibility with City Attorney Tim Spencer.

“I regret to inform you that City staff researched City-owned properties in its inventory but does not have any property available where the Club may relocate,” Spencer wrote in a July 14 letter to Hill, a copy of which is in court records.

Spencer said Champ’s Gym had until Aug. 15 to move out.

If not, “The City will initiate formal legal proceedings to evict the Club from the Premises,” Spencer wrote.

Victor Banks, president of the Melrose Athletic Club. ROANOKE RAMBLER FILE PHOTO

In an injunction filed Aug. 7 in Roanoke City Circuit Court, Hill said state law requires a 60-day notice for not renewing the lease, which expired Nov. 30.

A letter dated Sept. 30 from an official in the city’s economic development office said the city would not renew the lease. But an envelope included in court records shows the letter was postmarked Oct. 3.

Hill said that delay — and a lease requirement that notices be delivered personally or by certified mail — shows the club is not in violation of the lease.

Hill withdrew the injunction on Aug. 16. Hill said that’s because the city opted against the informal eviction route and instead would proceed with a formal unlawful detainer order.

Brad Stephens, executive director of REACH, said he has not received official word from the city about that nonprofit’s proposal recently. He hadn’t heard of any other groups that submitted bids.

“We're not pushing for anything at this point,” he said. “We're happy for the city to take their time.”

Stephens previously said REACH proposed investing about $150,000 in renovating the old fire station through a sale or a lease-to-own agreement. REACH, which runs summer camps and revitalization projects, aims to hold concerts and neighborhood parties in the building.

“I'm just sad to see them evicted, and I really hope that there's a path forward for them,” he said of the Melrose Athletic Club, “because I do think they do good work for the city.”

Five young boxers and an equal number of volunteer coaches sparred at the gym on Tuesday. About 30 players are on the roster, with maybe 10 to 15 attending regularly, according to Banks. In recent months, boxers have traveled to northern Virginia, South Carolina and Delaware for matches.

Banks hopes for a positive resolution, but doesn’t like how the situation with the gym’s lease played out.

“I feel like there's been, you know, some dealings and promises, and then we're caught in the middle,” he said.

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