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Tipping Point?

Local Matters


Published February 9, 2005 at 5:00 p.m.

Burlington's Old North End is home to plenty of social service agencies -- and one more in the 'hood may be one too many. That's likely to be the topic of debate at the February 15 meeting of the city's Develop-ment Review Board. On the agenda is an application by the Turning Point Recovery Center of Chittenden County to move its operation to North Street.

The nonprofit organization, which is funded by grants from the Vermont Department of Health, closed its Colchester headquarters in January. It's seeking to convert the former home of Champlain Valley Weatherization, at 194 North St., to a "sober club" where addicts and alcoholics will have access to support and information about recovery.

Treasurer Katie Borden explains the club will be run by volunteers overseen by a club manager. She says the location, with its low rent and easy access to public transportation, will be a good fit for the center, and suggests the "safe, substance-free" space will have a "positive influence" on the neighborhood.

But some city officials and Old North End residents say the center is not the right tenant for the street. Progressive City Councilor Tim Ashe, whose Ward 3 district would host Turning Point, argues that North Street already has more than its share of social-service agencies, including the Champlain Valley Economic Opportunity Office, the Burlington Emergency Shelter and the agencies housed in the O.N.E. Storefront. He suggests that it's not a NIMBY -- Not in My Back Yard -- issue, but more like NAIMBY -- Not Always in My Backyard.

"Can't someone else take a little of this burden?" he asks, voicing a common complaint about North Street's reputation as "a dumping ground for social services."

Kirsten Merriman Shapiro, who oversees the North Street Revitalization Program for the city's Community and Economic Development Office, claims the location of a recovery center on the street runs counter to the objectives of the city's revitalization plan.

"I'm not anti-recovery," Shapiro insists, "and you need to have places to reach out and provide support. However, the city has spent the last several years investing $6 million in the infrastructure of North Street." The plan, which includes input from businesses, residents, city commissions and nonprofits, calls for more businesses and retail stores. "It wouldn't add to the economic viability of the street," she says.

LaFountain Street resident Nina McDonnell, who works for the Vermont Housing Finance Agency, is sympathetic to the need for sober spaces. "My dad was in recovery for years, and I'm pretty familiar with the type of club they're talking about," she says. But McDonnell sides with Ashe and Shapiro about the need for small businesses on North Street. The recovery center is "not the right fit," she says.

McDonnell also suggests that Turning Point consider relocating in one of the tonier parts of town. In her experience, she observes, it's a misperception that most addicts are from the "deepest, dankest" corners of the neighborhood. "Spending time with my dad, I met a lot of very wealthy people who were in recovery."