EVANSVILLE, Ind. — Forget about the “wash here, dry free” format. The same goes for grand openings where they give it all away for a week. You might as well throw in the so-called deep-discount charity coin-ops to boot. Here on Columbia Street, it’s the real deal: free wash, free dry, all the time.
If you thought not charging for loads would turn this self-proclaimed “Free For All” laundry into a chaotic free-for-all, don’t fret. Manager Don Clark has that all under control.
Just check in at his makeshift reception and sit tight until he waves you over to an assigned washer and dryer to load and reload until the job’s done without ever opening your wallet. Like the sign posted inside reads: “No Cash. No Coins. Leave your Money at Home.”
Can’t afford soap and bleach? Just pour what you need from the complimentary stock atop the bulkhead.
Welcome to the Jack Henry Gates Memorial Community Laundromat, where everything on offer is on the house — no questions asked.
By 2 o’clock on this particular Saturday, the customer tally stands at 44, with a queue of five eager for one of the 16 small-capacity washers and matching single-load stack dryer pockets.
For Christine Vaughn, who can’t bear the expense to repair her broken home washer, the 90-minute wait with two weeks’ worth of laundry is taken in stride: “It’s not a problem. There’s a lot of people like me who can use a free laundry.”
Sitting nearby is returning customer Jamie Basham, who, like others, remains patient and in good spirits. With no apartment wash facility, and her shift on the assembly line fast approaching, she looks for a green light to launder her three loads.
“There is no price, that’s why I come here. I don’t have the funds yet,” Basham explains. “I’m not fixing to go to work wearing dirty clothes.”
Neighborhood resident Laurie Payne enjoys the camaraderie as much as the no-charge format.
“It lets you mingle with a lot of people and socialize. It’s a joy,” the 55-year-old patron says.
Frightened to use rodent-infested machines at home, Payne, who relies on Social Security disability, frequented a pay coin-op but found it a budget-buster.
“It got to the point where I spent 20 bucks and I only got three loads done. I can’t afford that on my monthly income.” To her, the free laundry facility “is a gift from God.”
Payne and the others have Dennis Gates to thank. The construction businessman and philanthropist admits he knew nothing about self-service laundry when a shuttered building on the market housing an abandoned back-to-back bank of washers and wall of stack dryers caught his eye two years ago.
“I looked around at it and thought, ‘Golly, it’s kind of small and the building is nice. It would be a good opportunity to buy this and give back to the community,’” he recalls, acknowledging the plight of homeless and those struggling to make ends meet in a neighborhood just north of the city’s downtown district. “I thought it was a good idea if they could have good clean clothes, make them feel better, and go out and try to get a job.”
Gates’ wife Shelley and nephew Matt Gates were soon on board, along with employees of the family-owned Ace Roofing and Construction, rolling up their sleeves to make a not-for-profit laundry a reality.
Before reopening the doors in November 2015, the facility’s machines were placed in operating order; lighting, water heating and HVAC updated; and new soffit, facia, roofing and fencing installed. City Hall required additional paved off-street parking, necessitating the purchase and razing of an adjacent building. The price tag, including acquisitions, came in around $200,000, Gates shares.
The benevolent operator picked up the tab and funds day-to-day operations.
On Thursday: Assisting less fortunate defines the family legacy