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The Man Behind DASH

The following article was written by Sherri Brown in conjunction with Lewis and Broad Media. The link to the original article can be found at 

His mother worked the third shift; his father worked the second shift. Everyone in Ricky Wolfe’s family and neighborhood worked for Dunson Mills. He thought the whole world went to bed, then woke up at 9:30 P.M. to walk to the mill gate to switch off parents and go back home and back to bed. Every adult on his street was a shift worker, and his friends also gathered at the gate each night. His neighborhood had a church, recreation center, scouting program, and pool – all owned by the mill. His elementary school was in the neighborhood as well. He met his future wife in junior high school.

“It was a safe, secure place to grow up,” he recalled.

He left LaGrange and went to Georgia Tech on a football scholarship, playing linebacker for Bobby Dodd’s last Orange Bowl team. He married right after college and set out to find a job.

“I swore I’d never work in a cotton mill. But I couldn’t find a job after college, so I came back and went to work at Dixie Mill,“ he said. “I was in the training program, then became third shift supervisor, then moved to second shift.”

He continued working for the mill in LaGrange, then in Opelika, then returning to be the Dunson Mill Assistant Manager.

“That was my dream, because my father was manager of Dunson,” he said.

His career took him to other mills in Texas and South Carolina, until he decided to go into business with two other men. “We had a lot of fun developing new technology for fabric. The industry was growing, and it was a good move,” he said. The company thrived and even had its high-profile moments, including making the fabric for Ted Turner’s sails when he won the America’s Cup. In 1997, Wolfe sold the company and began thinking about the next stage in life.

“We had vacationed for years on the South Carolina coast, and I assumed we’d go there when we retired. But I asked Lynn if she wanted to look at houses on the coast, and she told me she was moving back to LaGrange,” he said.

They returned in 1997 to their hometown, near both parents and other extended family.

“I was 47 years old, and I had nothing to do. It was very scary,” he admitted. “However, I did feel like I had something to contribute.”

Not long after returning to LaGrange, he heard a report of a 20-year strategic plan. One of the items that stood out was LaGrange’s serious problem in housing availability. With the national average for homeownership in a city the size of LaGrange at 66 percent, only 46 percent of LaGrange’s heads of households were homeowners. It was an indicator that housing could seriously decline in the years ahead.

“I went back to my old house and my old school, and I saw the tremendous decline. I wondered if we could bring life back to it or if it was too far gone,” he said.

He started asking local leaders questions and consistently heard the same answer: “It’s on the list.”

With 11,000 housing units in LaGrange and 3,000 of those found to be structurally substandard, that answer didn’t work for Wolfe. 

“It was always on a list, but the answer was really, no, we don’t have a plan to change this,” he said.

Wolfe decided housing was something he wanted to tackle. It wasn’t something he knew anything about – “I’m not a Home Depot kind of guy” – but it was something he cared about.

“And it didn’t sound like I’d have any competition with the issue,” he said.

He did research and wrote a proposal.

“In the 1940s, there were 11 active textile plants in a circle around the center of LaGrange. They were strategically placed for access to flowing water and dumping waste. All those communities were dying,” he said.

He submitted his proposal to address the housing issues to a prospective funding group. A few months later, they responded, telling him: “This is really poorly done. Too much vision, not enough on how you’ll accomplish it.”

Determined, he went back to work, and his next proposal for a new nonprofit organization called DASH – Dependable, Affordable, Sustainable Housing – was good enough to receive a $5 million grant. 

Now he had the money, but no staff, no office, and no competency. “I knew how to run a business, but not all the other stuff,” he said.

In 2002 on South Greenwood Street in a former beauty shop, he set up the first DASH office. Then, he hired his first staff. He wanted to start work in the Dunson community, but after a serious look, it made more sense to start in another area.

“We started in the Hillside community. The level of decay was not as bad as other areas, and the proximity to the college, industry, and the hospital was attractive,” he said.

DASH began buying deteriorating properties owned by absentee landlords, rebuilding them, and selling them, often to first-time homeowners. Proceeds from those sales were used to continue rebuilding more homes, as well as providing homeownership services. Other funding came from Department of Community Affairs grants, private funding including the Callaway Foundation, and support from the city of LaGrange – the largest income stream. In 18 years, DASH has built or re-built 194 single-family homes and developed 232 rental units.

One project took Wolfe back to his childhood neighborhood. Dunson School closed in 1986 after 50 years, and 20 years later, it was slated to be torn down.

“They asked me if we wanted it. Took a look at it, and the roof had caved in the center of the building. It was a wreck, but three homeless families were living in the basement,” Wolfe recalled. 

He took the property and, with a grant, rebuilt the large classrooms into 28 apartments for low-income seniors. He named it after his father, Richard W. Wolfe Apartments at Dunson School.

Laurel Ridge was the first tax credit project. The 70-unit neighborhood is a lease-to-own project. When the tax credit expires in 2023, the residents can buy their homes, and an annual escrow will be theirs to use toward the purchase.

“I’m 72, and I’d like to finish that project before I go,” Wolfe said.

Although he had a severe health issue in 2020, Wolfe has recovered and plans to keep working with DASH. Currently, Nate Crawford is Interim Executive Director of DASH, while Wolfe remains chairman of the Board of Directors. The two meet weekly to discuss DASH’s work and for Crawford to learn from DASH’s founder.

“I’ve never had a millennial work for me,” Wolfe said. “Our world views are extremely different. But it’s good.”

Crawford agreed. “I was very nervous at first, but I would not trade his leadership for anything. He’s wise,” Crawford said. “Someone told me that he’s never wrong. Not because of pride, but because he does his research.”

Wolfe does admit to one failing: “I’m disappointed that I was so naïve about the magnitude of this problem,” he said. “If you had told me that you’d give me $55 million, I would have said we didn’t need that much because we could solve this for sure with less than that. That’s what we’ve had over the past 18 years, and we haven’t solved it yet.”