Former St. Mary’s School eyed as recovery center
MIDDLEBURY — The Turning Point Center of Addison County (TPC) is in talks with St. Mary’s Catholic Church parish for potential long-term use of the former St. Mary’s School building at 86 Shannon St. in Middlebury as a center for people recovering from substance use disorder and other addictions.
At the same time they’re trying to negotiate a lengthy lease, TPC officials are also exploring potential funding sources for repairs that would allow the building to reopen.
St. Mary’s School, across Shannon Street from the church, closed in June 2016 in the wake of declining enrollment, which is also a common lament among Vermont public schools.
Jennifer Mayhew, the TPC’s new executive director, said she and her colleagues see the 10,600-square-foot building as a prime downtown location they believe could conveniently offer people in recovery such services as peer coaching, yoga, meeting space, family support and childcare.
And Mayhew has an even grander, future vision for the property: She’d like to see the second floor of the school someday host “sober living” housing for those leaving residential treatment facilities and who need a drug-free place to stay for several months.
“All of this is very preliminary, but that’s the dream; we’d like it to be a community hub, and it has the potential that we could invite other human services to join us,” Mayhew said.
St. Mary’s Church Parish has had a history of supporting addiction recovery efforts. As reported by the Independent last year, the St. Mary’s School parking lot has periodically hosted a mobile medical van from which Dr. Will Porter and others have cared for people with health woes — including some who are battling addiction.
Porter and his colleagues have put together Medication Assisted Treatment plans for those who need them; no drugs or money are kept in the van.
“For the Catholic Church and Farther Luke there was no stigma (around addiction treatment), and they were open to the services that we provide,” Mayhew said. “That’s, to me, is very meaningful — that a faith-based organization is open to the idea of people in recovery and accepting all people.”
This gave TPC officials the confidence to draft a proposal for the dormant St. Mary’s School property when they heard the parish was entertaining ideas for its reuse.
CHILDCARE HUB NIXED
Middlebury College and TPC both submitted plans for the property.
The parish first considered the college’s proposal to transform the site into a childcare hub.
The plan failed to pass muster with the parish, however.
“In 2021, St. Mary’s Parish declined to accept the building of a separate child-care center as part of a larger property proposal from Middlebury College,” the Rev. Luke Austin, pastor of St. Mary’s, said through an email exchange with the Independent.
He noted this wasn’t the first time the college had pitched a childcare center for the former school property.
“In 2019, the Parish was open to this possibility, but the college withdrew from consideration,” he said. “Furthermore, there was no interest in converting St. Mary’s School to become a child-care center.”
So the Parish has pivoted back to the TPC proposal, and both sides are seeing if they can reach an accord.
“We’re very excited that they’re still interested in us, and we’re very interested in them,” Mayhew said. “However, I still have that challenge in front of me that I think even to reopen the place, we’re looking at a minimum of $250,000.”
Turning Point officials want to show they can raise the money to reopen the structure, and then raise even more money — a lot of it — to add a residential component to the mix. Mayhew believes such a project could cost in the $5 million range.
Mayhew and her colleagues described their plan in a March 30 narrative to U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. It calls for 15 “updated, energy-efficient, one-bedroom affordable apartments,” office space, commercial kitchen, and a 2,200-square-foot recreation/community room.
“The renovated apartments will provide supportive transitional housing to individuals who suffer from substance use disorder, are leaving residential treatment, and do not have access to housing free of drugs and alcohol,” reads the narrative. “The community center will provide temporary housing with services and case management supports of local community organizations located in the same space. The meeting space will be used by the TPC staff and participants as needed and for larger group offerings or community meetings.”
Turning Point has identified several potential funding sources for the project, including grant programs offered by the Vermont Agency of Commerce & Community Development, HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development), the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board, and federal COVID-19 relief.
“There is a lot of funding out there for housing,” Mayhew said, adding the Addison County Community Trust could help with a residential component to the new center.
Addison County currently has zero residential recovery beds (sober housing) for an estimated 221 men and women now undergoing addiction treatment, according to a report titled “Housing: A Critical Link to Recovery,” authored by John Ryan of East Montpelier-based Development Cycles.
Around 75% of people in residential treatment in Vermont qualify for Medicaid, which pays for up to two weeks of treatment, according to Mayhew.
“Physiologically, they haven’t yet detoxed, and then they’re sent back into the world,” she lamented. “Only about 2% of people leaving residential treatment in the state of Vermont have access to sober living.”
Tragically, some have no choice but to stay with family or friends who still use drugs, which sends them back into the addiction spiral, according to Mayhew.
Plans call for TPC to pay St. Mary’s Parish $40,000 per year in rent, money that could also be invested in repairs to the former school building, according to Mayhew. The building needs, among other things, a new sprinkler system, a new furnace, refurbished bathrooms, wiring improvements, new radiators, and removal of an underground oil tank, according to a list provided to the Independent.
‘A PASTORAL PRIORITY’
The Rev. Austin called the talks with TPC “serious.”
“The Parish Council identified assisting those in recovery as a leading pastoral priority for us,” he said.
So the Parish has formed a “working group” that will meet next month to focus on the TPC proposal and consider firms qualified to inspect the St. Mary’s School building and specify repairs essential to its reopening as a meeting space. The repair list and costs will be shared with TPC.
St. Mary’s leaders agree with TPC’s long-term vision of providing sober housing within the building.
“Certainly, the Parish is open to that, but we’re just focusing right now on ‘Can we get it to a meeting space for Turning Point’s current needs?’” the Rev. Austin said. He added the prospect of sober housing “is exciting, because that’s a need.”
Should TPC’s recovery center plan not advance, St. Mary’s Parish will revisit previous housing proposals for the property, according to the Rev. Austin.
The former St. Mary’s School is in Middlebury’s High Density Residential Use zone. Conditional uses in that district include such things as bed & breakfast, church, library, museum, governmental use, multiple-family dwelling, rooming house and nursing home/assisted living.
Middlebury Director of Planning & Zoning Jennifer Murray said she’d withhold comment on TPC’s plan until she learns more details.
Having more space is important to TPC as it looks to reopen, post-pandemic, to people in recovery. The center currently occupies around 3,300 square feet at 54A Creek Road. With COVID restrictions, the center’s main meeting spot can only accommodate 14 people for programs that typically draw 25-30, according to Mayhew.
Much of TPC’s peer-support programming has been online during the pandemic. Turning Point officials are eager to return to in-person programming, as making personal connections with people enhances recovery.
Mayhew added TPC’s current location is not ideal.
“We’re off the beaten path, behind a car wash,” she said.
While TPC continues to pursue the former St. Mary’s School, Middlebury College hasn’t given up on its effort to assist in the creation of more childcare in and around Addison County’s shire town.
“The college and other employers in Middlebury are determined to find a communitywide childcare solution as the loss of childcare spots during the last decade is staggering,” said Sarah Ray, the college’s director of media relations.
Ray pointed to a January 2020 Addison County childcare evaluation performed by the nonprofit group Let’s Grow Kids. That suggested 467 infants, 231 toddlers and 475 preschoolers would need care during 2020. But the county only had 155 infant slots, 114 toddler slots and 386 preschool slots, according to the evaluation.
And the problem is getting worse. As the Independent reported, the 24-slot Sunshine Childcare Center in Middlebury is expected to close by this August.
This is providing further motivation to the college to serve as a childcare catalyst.
“Our top priority right now is identifying a viable location and we are working closely with the childcare expansion team and our architect to choose a site that will satisfy program needs,” Ray said.
Reporter John Flowers is at email@example.com.