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An architect’s rendering of Groundworks’ proposed new shelter and program building. Early plans call for the structure to be built on land next door to Groundworks Drop-In Center, which the nonprofit recently purchased.

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Groundworks buys land for a new facility

Nonprofit plans shelter and space for its programs to help people who need housing and food

BRATTLEBORO—Josh Davis answered questions as he prepared for a 9 a.m. meeting — a meeting that was many years, and multiple site visits, in the making.

There, on Jan. 28, Groundworks Collaborative closed on 54 South Main St. as the site for its new facility, which will be capable of housing client programs, a food shelf, a day shelter, and the Seasonal Overflow Shelter (SOS), said Davis, the organization’s executive director.

“We’re excited,” Davis said about the $3.2 million project, whose site abuts the Groundworks Drop-In Center at 60 South Main St. “It’s a vital project for the health of the people we serve.”

Davis estimates that the organization has invested 1{1/2} years of effort since it first identified the property as a possibility.

While the project is still in its very early stages — a point that Davis stressed twice — Groundworks has completed the feasibility phase. Architects have developed preliminary designs, and the organization has applied for initial funding, including federal funding from the Community Development Block Grant (CBDG) program, administered by the state Agency of Commerce and Community Development.

In the grant application, the organization noted that it must complete the project in time to open the overflow shelter in November 2020.

Groundworks plans to demolish an existing building on the site.

Referencing numbers from the annual effort by the Vermont Coalition to End Homelessness to measure the complete extent of homelessness in the state on the night of Jan. 31, 2018, Groundworks wrote in its CBDG grant application that “112 individuals in 84 households were homeless in Windham County on the night of the annual Point-In-Time Count.”

According to that survey, more than half of those in Windham County (46 out of 84) were experiencing homelessness for the first time. The annual count has recorded an upward trend in homelessness since numbers took a slight dip in 2016.

Under one roof

“Consolidate” might be the best word for what a new facility built at 54 South Main St. would achieve.

Currently, Groundworks’ programs and staff are spread across three sites: the long-term shelter at 81 Royal Rd., the Drop-In Center at 60 South Main St., and the Seasonal Overflow Shelter on the campus of the Winston Prouty Center for Child and Family Development at 209 Austine Drive.

The proposed facility would put client services under one roof. It would also free space at 81 Royal Road for four more permanent beds and the Drop-In Center, Davis explained in a recent grant application.

The Drop-In Center, which currently offers only 500 square feet for the day shelter, would become administration space, he added.

Along with program offices, the proposed building would provide 34 seasonal overnight beds, two restrooms built to standards defined in the Americans with Disabilities Act, showers, and a full kitchen, as well as laundry facilities and storage for clients’ belongings, both short- and long-term.

“The move to South Main Street will represent a cost-neutral shift in operations due to the substantial current costs of renting the dormitory for the SOS and office space for administrative and program staff,” explained Development Director Libby Bennett.

Each year, both buildings on South Main Street will serve at least 345 people, who will use the overflow shelter, the day shelter/drop-in center, case management, and representative payee program, Bennett wrote in an email.

She noted that the organization served 4,182 different individuals across all its programs in its 2018 fiscal year, from July 2017 to June 2018. This total includes the more than 100 people who access the long-term shelter each year.

Bennett also noted that 3,837 people used the food shelf in fiscal year 2017.

According to its grant application, “The SOS served 154 unduplicated individuals in the 2016/2017 season (making it the highest-utilized warming shelter in the state of Vermont that year) and 155 in the winter of 2017/2018.” Staff have noted an increase in the number of people using the SOS this winter.

A long search for adequate facilities

Since its formation in 2015, the organization focused on reducing homelessness has fought against one major irony: it does not have an adequate home base for many of its programs, namely the Seasonal Overflow Shelter.

Groundworks, which formed after the merger of Morningside Shelter and the Brattleboro Area Drop-in Center, operated the SOS during the coldest winter months out of First Baptist Church on Main Street for approximately a decade.

In 2015, when the organization learned that the space would no longer be available, Groundworks considered a site on Frost Street. The project eventually proved too expensive and also received negative feedback from some neighborhood residents.

After the scuttled attempt to develop property on Frost Street as a permanent shelter, Groundworks moved the effort to the Winston Prouty Campus, with both organizations acknowledging that the move would serve merely as a stopgap measure.

Davis said that both buildings at 54 and 60 South Main St. underwent review by historic-preservation experts, who “strongly encouraged” Groundworks to renovate the current Drop-In Center, which was built in the late 1700s, he said.

The house on the new property was another story: despite its significant historic details, its poor condition made rehabilitation cost prohibitive, Davis said.

Davis noted that 54 South Main’s apartment is empty, so no one will face eviction to build the new facility, he said.

Rental market tight in Brattleboro

Town Manager Peter Elwell said, “I’m hopeful that this is the initiative that will come to completion.”

Elwell said that Brattleboro’s housing market remains tight, especially its rental market. In general, rentals are at 90-percent occupancy, he said, a level that can make finding affordable housing difficult.

It’s important to the town that it support housing organizations like the Windham & Windsor Housing Trust and Groundworks, he said, noting that such organizations provide the essential service of creating “sufficient, affordable, safe housing.”

Groundworks sits at one end of the housing spectrum, Elwell noted, crediting it with serving people in “desperate need of safe shelter.”

A permanent location is important for Groundworks’ continued success and for keeping people safe, he added.

“It’s time for this project,” he said.

Davis said the proposed project will serve the community as a whole.

“The way a community takes care of its most vulnerable says so much about the community,” he said. “This project puts the needs of the vulnerable at the forefront of community priorities.”

Pieces of the funding puzzle

Groundworks is in the early stages of gathering project funding.

If its CDBG application is approved, the organization will receive $500,000. The town of Brattleboro acts as the sponsor and administrator for local CBDG grants.

Town staff have also recommended the town provide a grant to the project of $50,000 from the town’s Program Income Fund.

Monies in this fund are separate from tax money and come from income raised through loan programs the town administers like the Small Business Assistance Program. Elwell noted the fund currently has a little more than $500,000 for use.

Per the CBDG grant process, the town will hold a public hearing on the grant at its Selectboard meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 5, when the board will then vote on whether to approve sending the grant application to the state.

Board members will also consider whether to approve granting the $50,000.

Davis said he has held one-on-one conversations with people in the South Main Street neighborhood. So far, he said, residents have provided supportive feedback.

Still, he realizes people may have questions, and he encourages them to reach out.

“I have an open-door policy,” said Davis, who can be reached at 802-490-2951.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #495 (Wednesday, January 30, 2019). This story appeared on page A1.

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