Brattleboro's Groundworks Collaborative scrubs Frost Street move

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BRATTLEBORO — A plan to set up a central location on Frost Street for Groundworks Collaborative has been scrubbed.

In a letter to the community, Joshua Davis, executive director noted that the decision was made after a "comprehensive feasibility study" was conducted.

"The project is more expensive than anticipated, while providing only for our short-term needs, and the timing is wrong to raise the amount of money needed to establish the Seasonal Overflow Shelter there for this coming November," he wrote.

Last year, Morningside Shelter and the Brattleboro Area Drop In Center merged to create Groundworks Collaborative. Following the merger, noted Davis, it became apparent that "a new, expanded space for the organization was a top priority" in helping Groundworks meets its expanded needs.

"In that time we have conducted environmental studies, flood mitigation plans, a fundraising assessment, and site plans, while assessing our organizational capacity to take on the project," said Davis. "After thoroughly analyzing the information we've collected, we have come to the difficult conclusion that we will not be moving forward with plans at 39 Frost Street."

Davis noted that Groundworks attempted to make the plan work "with a phased approach" by locating the seasonal overflow shelter and food shelf at the site as the first two phases.

"However, the result would still be a major expense leaving us with a scaled-back project that would not entirely meet our needs; not to mention consuming energy that would otherwise be dedicated to serving clients and strengthening our new organization," he wrote. "Ultimately, moving forward with the expansion project at this time would threaten the sustainability of Groundworks Collaborative."

In the past, the Seasonal Overflow Shelter has been located at the First Baptist Church on Main Street, and only open during the winter. One of the goals of finding a new location for Groundworks was to replace that space.

Groundworks' plan stirred up resentment in the neighborhood, especially when people learned that, unlike Morningside Shelter, where clients need to be sober, the seasonal overflow shelter had no sobriety requirement.

But Stewart McDermet said that though he had heard that concern mentioned by his neighbors, that wasn't the over-riding concern for him.

"At first, we heard that this was going to be an overnight shelter, with a 5 p.m. dinner, a place to sleep and then out in the morning," he said. "But then we learned there was going to be a lot more daily activity there, including the Drop In Center."

The Drop In Center, now known as the Day Shelter, "provides a safe place where our neighbors experiencing homelessness can come in out of the weather and access services such as email, telephones, laundry, showers, coffee and snacks, as well as a kitchen to prepare a meal, donated clothing, books, toys and other household items," states its website.

Groundworks Shelter, formerly known as Morningside Shelter, is a year-round 30-bed shelter for families and individuals, which offers an extended stay and provides all residents intensive case management, working collaboratively with area non-profit and public agencies to help people connect to a wide range of services.

"We heard both concerns and support from the community," noted Davis. "In sum, we have learned a great deal from this process and will come out of the time invested with a better understanding of our community's needs."

Groundworks also runs the region's largest and busiest food shelf, open Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Tuesdays from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. The food shelf serves roughly 1,000 individuals (220 households) each month.

"From the start this neighborhood was aware of, and wanted to help in, finding a solution," wrote McDermett and his wife, Kris, in a letter to the editor. "The people who use these facilities are part of all communities everywhere. Who among us does not have our own things to deal with though they may not be as visible?"

McDermett said he and his neighbors are not disputing the need for such a facility, "But don't shove it into a less prosperous corner of town."

Davis told the Reformer during a telephone interview that while he was not surprised by the concerns raised in the neighborhood, he was surprised by the tone of some of the letters to the editor that criticized him, Groundworks and its board.

"We felt we had a good plan in place to establish an advisory committee that would formalize the participation of community members to sit with our other partners, such as the police department and HCRS," said Davis.

When asked if the concerns raised by the neighborhood weighed into the decision to cancel the move, Davis said "Not at all."

"Financially it wasn't the best idea," he said. "And we are at our organizational capacity right now. We are still considering as an organization whether we can do this."

Davis noted that the plan to move to Frost Street had only reached the feasibility stage, and now that the move has been shelved, Groundworks has formed a community task force to determine where best to site the facility.

"Moving forward, the Seasonal Overflow Shelter is going to require additional support from the community, and we will communicate updates as they progress," wrote Davis in his letter to the community. "In making this decision, we renew our commitment and dedication to providing supports to meet the basic needs of our neighbors, and do so with dignity, while moving Groundworks forward in a sustainable and financially responsible way."

McDermett told the Reformer he and his neighbors are willing to participate and hopefully find a solution for "all of the community and not just the homeless," and he hopes Groundworks is more transparent going forward.

"We felt Josh and the board had not consulted the neighbors and that the plans had changed over time," he said.

At this point, Groundworks has not identified a new location for its winter overflow shelter, said Davis.

"We are working on this as we speak. We have great support from Town Manager Peter Elwell and other town officials with help in identifying other sites."

Davis admitted the process of siting a new facility for Groundworks isn't going to make everyone happy.

"The next step as an organization is to have an advisory committee to work with the community to work with some of their concerns and to make this a stronger program in general."

Davis said the ideal spot would be within walking distance of downtown. "If we exhaust all those options, we will start looking outside of that area."

Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 160.


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