VERGENNES — The president of the company that has contracted with the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) to operate Northlands Job Corps pledged last week to the Vergennes City Council that his firm would work hard to strengthen ties with its host community, including improving cooperation with the Vergennes Police Department.
Howard Raik, head of Illinois firm CHP International, told aldermen on Nov. 19 that earlier in the day he had assured Mayor Bill Benton and City Manager Mel Hawley that he understood the local concerns about Northlands, which offers vocational and academic training to disadvantaged youths.
He acknowledged there had been what he called “rough going” — the DOL (which oversees the nation’s roughly 120 Job Corps centers) terminated previous operator Alutiiq LLC’s contract in March 2012, an action that DOL officials never explained but that followed reports of violence at the center and city officials’ frustration that Vergennes police were not getting timely reports.
“I’m aware that there is a degree of ambivalence in Vergennes about Northlands Job Corps for a number of reasons,” Raik said.
Raik said he and Hawley had discussed the issue of police cooperation, and Raik said Northlands would work with the city to put a policy in place and follow it.
“We want to get the issues aired … and work toward a memorandum of understanding that reflects decisions that all parties accept,” he said. “And once that memorandum of understanding is in place, we will guarantee that it will be honored, that it will be reliable.”
Alderman and former city manager Renny Perry noted that the reporting issue predated Alutiiq.
“Hopefully you’re the one with the golden solution,” Perry said.
Raik said CHP would take its civic responsibilities seriously and that the company hopes to improve “the profile of the center in the community” through outreach to civic organizations as well as city officials.
“We hear that it has been rough going,” he said, citing the “instability and doubt” due to Alutiiq’s problems and longer-than-expected tenure — the DOL first said Alutiiq would be replaced in December 2012.
“Our highest priority is reaching out to the community here, to try to restore or create in the first place” a mutually beneficial relationship, he said, one in which the community supports Northlands and center students participate in regular volunteerism in Vergennes and the surrounding towns.
Raik said CHP would also try to create a more respectful culture at the center.
“Mel and Bill voiced some concerns about how the young people appear, how they behave, when they come into town, with what frequency, (and) in what numbers,” Raik said. “We have plans to work on the culture of that community up there, the culture of staff and of students, so that there is an increase of pride and self-respect, in respect for the neighborhood that we’re in and the desire to be good neighbors.”
Raik also said CHP, which has not operated a center previously but has recruited students for centers (former Vergennes mayor Sue Clark coordinates its program in the Northeast), also would work hard to upgrade educational performance.
“Northlands hasn’t been doing very well in some important dimensions, so (that’s) one of the other areas we’re going to turn our attention to,” he said. “And that has to do with finding new qualified staff, and in some cases hiring incumbent staff and retraining them. But one way or another we have to turn our attention to those performances.”
Raik also confirmed Tony Staynings would return as center director. Staynings first came to Northlands with Rescare Inc. in 2008 and stayed on as director when Alutiiq took over in 2010. He left in April 2011, when Jim Linday assumed the position.
City officials said they were hopeful CHP would live up to the goals Raik outlined. Benton said the earlier sit-down went well with Raik and Staynings and officials from Education and Training Resources, a firm that will be working closely with CHP.
“It was a great meeting today. It was a pleasure meeting all of you,” Benton said. “We’ll keep the lines of communication open.”
Alderwoman Lynn Donnelly summed up the council’s attitude.
“We look forward to the change,” Donnelly said.