BRADENTON -- Roughly 40,000 square feet of weeds and trees were not what Major Duane Durham saw as he scanned the vacant lot just south of the Salvation Army headquarters on 14th Street West.
His vision was entirely different.
What he imagined was a handsome three-story brick building with retail space at street level, mixed-use transitional affordable housing for families and people facing homelessness.
Whether that concept ever becomes reality is anyone's guess.
Yet Durham and his staff will have a better idea what the chances are when the Salvation Army hosts a community town hall meeting this week under a tent on the vacant property the agency bought last year.
Officials from the City of Bradenton and Manatee County, other nonprofits, residents and neighboring business owners are invited at noon Thursday.
"This is a great way for us to hear from the community what they think we should do with that property and for
us to share our ideas on how we can better serve Manatee County in the future," Durham said. "Thursday is to help continue the conversation on an issue long identified as a need."
The event will culminate on National Salvation Army Week, an observance of the institution's past, present and future.
On Tuesday volunteers will celebrate the past, distributing coffee and donuts outside the old Manatee County courthouse at noon while its band plays.
On Wednesday, the Salvation Army will recognize its present, initiating major donors into the William Booth Society, named for its founder.
Thursday's event invokes its future.
The focus will be on the feasibility of "service enriched housing," a hybrid housing model with 12 to 24 living units with parking and green space. It will offer participants in the family shelter program the opportunity to live independently in housing they can afford, while attending life skills coaching workshops to usher them toward upward social mobility.
Ideally, a family or individual would spend three to six months a year in such housing, working, saving money and keeping accountable to the program specialized for them until they're able to move onto their own apartments or homes.
It is not going to be a "flophouse," Salvation Army officials stress.
"We're not in the business of people bumming around," Durham said. "We want them moving up to that next level. It may not be for everybody. We want to make sure sustainability is in place. We want to have people coming through and conceivably not have to come back for service or assistance -- other than spiritual."
The project also calls for developing a women's shelter, which it does not have now.
"We haven't identified the number, but there will be space for single women," said Christine Smith, director of resource and program development.
That is critical, said board member Ed Dick.
Current shelter space has six rooms -- five for families; one for a single woman.
"Our family shelter is negligible and women's shelter is nonexistent," he said.
The men's shelter has 105 beds plus floor space for 50.
The Salvation Army has been able to raise $2 million for the service-enriched housing project, according to Dick, but the retail component is critical.
"We've got the money to build it, but we need a financial partner to help run it, whether it's retail or any entity," he said. "If we don't get one, it's not going to happen."
Cheri Coryea, Manatee County's director of neighborhood services, hopes it does.
"The largest concentration of need is family housing -- short-term, transitional housing for families who can live together," she said. "That land is a natural incentive to develop this. The only group that's been able to successfully address family housing is the Salvation Army. They're trying hard to meet the need and get everybody on board with what they want to do."
Especially City Hall.
Bradenton officials were cool toward the Salvation Army's ideas last year when Durham's predecessor, Major Ethan Frizzell, announced the property purchase and subsequent housing plans.
It was residential only, however.
Subsequently, Durham said he has informally discussed the transitional housing plans -- retail space included -- with city planner Tim Polk.
Polk was on vacation last week, but Mayor Wayne Poston said he is keeping an open mind toward the Salvation Army's retooled conceptual plans.
"What we like is something with mixed use and enhances the (nearby) Village of the Arts," he said. "I haven't seen the latest version, but if it matches the master plan, OK. But we have to see the details. That makes the difference."
Salvation Army officials understand what that means.
"It's about how we fit in with the Village of the Arts," Durham said. "It's about contributing to this neighborhood and the economic well-being of this area."
Thursday's community town hall meeting is only the beginning, they hope.
"This is the time for us to ask and answer the really hard questions of this community," Smith said. "What does the community think they need and what will they support? We will not move forward until we know we have the community support."
Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7055. Twitter: @vinmannix.