Champlain Housing Trust in talks to buy Winooski’s O’Brien Community Center
Underused and in need of love, the O’Brien Community Center could soon have new owners.
Winooski officials are looking to sell the long-standing community hub on Malletts Bay Avenue to the Champlain Housing Trust.
The center has housed health services and various nonprofits for more than 15 years, but has been operating at a deficit, said Ray Coffey, director of community services for the city.
Several programs rent space in the O’Brien Center, but approximately 5,000 of the building’s 28,000 square feet are vacant, including the community kitchen. The center’s expenses for the current fiscal year are approximately $300,000. Revenue only partially covers those costs, so the city plans to use reserve funds to cover a shortfall of nearly $90,000, according to Coffey.
Cities, in general, aren’t big landlords, and Winooski officials haven’t been able to track maintenance of large facilities and rental spaces, City Manager Elaine Wang said.
“The hope is that it would be better managed and could even accommodate new tenants,” Wang said. “Our hope for the future is that it continues to be a community gathering place with community services and is better realized.
They aim to get a deal signed this fiscal year, according to Wang.
Coffey said the center is in a “period of transition following the termination of its lease with North End Studios, whose co-founder has been accused of sexual misconduct.” If we can find a potential buyer who wants to maintain the setting up as a community center in the spirit of what the facility was originally envisioned – which was sort of a resource center for the town – I think that could really be a fantastic opportunity.
Built in 1936 and owned and operated by the city since 2007, the center currently houses the Winooski Public Library and Community Services Department as well as several nonprofit programs and organizations.
Burlington Community Health Centers is the anchor tenant with Vermont Works for Women an initial tenant. The center is also home to an aquatic therapy program operated by the University of Vermont Medical Center; a parent-child interaction therapy program run by the Howard Center; substance abuse services run by Winooski Partnership for Prevention and non-profit dental services by Vermont Dental Care.
“When the building is full and busy, I think it’s a huge and important resource for the community,” Coffey said. “Especially for a lot of our newly settled residents, it’s really convenient to have everything sort of in one place.”
Michael Monte, chief executive of the Champlain Housing Trust, said he expects current tenants to continue operating there. He envisions trust by upgrading the building, improving services and renting out unused space. Monte cited the Old North End Community Center in Burlington, started by CHT in a former school building about five years ago, as a comparable venture.
“I think the focus will really be on more community services and improving the (building) as a community center,” he said.
Champlain Housing Trust recently completed a project next to the O’Brien Community Center that includes 20 permanently affordable homes selling for between $143,000 and $185,000, about half the market price.
The project, built on city-owned property, has sparked discussions about the future of the community center, Monte said.
“It was really the town of Winooski that determined that we did well as a nonprofit partner, could we take it all on?” he said. “This discussion has been going on for the past six to nine months and we’ve been working on various details that need to be thought through.”
The financing and timing of the sale remain under discussion. “The plans have to make sense for the city, and then we have to agree on the prices,” Wang said.
“I think the idea of this building at its center is really wonderful for the community. I just hope we can stabilize it to a point where it works really well for the people who live here,” Coffey said.
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