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Updated: July 13, 2020 Town Profile: New Britain

CMHA seeks integral role in downtown New Britain’s revival efforts

Photo | Contributed Community Mental Health Affiliates Inc. President and CEO Ray Gorman cuts the ribbon at the grand opening of CMHA’s Main Street, New Britain headquarters.

When Community Mental Health Affiliates Inc. (CMHA) moved into the Plaza building in downtown New Britain, neighbors were skeptical about what the nonprofit would add to the city’s largest business district.

New Britain Downtown District Executive Director Gerry Amodio had been trying to persuade Central Connecticut State University to move into the seven-story building at 233-235 Main St. But after those talks fell through, CMHA bought the 84,800-square-foot property for $3.4 million, and moved hundreds of workers in at the end of 2018. About a year-and-a-half later, Amodio says CMHA has turned out to be a good partner in developing the city’s downtown.

“It’s had a positive effect on restaurants and on shops because we have more people on the street,” Amodio said. “They’ve been very supportive of the programs we run. … They’ve really shown themselves to be a good neighbor.”

Ray Gorman, President and CEO, Community Mental Health Affiliates Inc.

By September, CMHA will put the finishing touches on about $4 million in renovations to the building, and will open a recently completed pharmacy that will be run by East Haven-based Beacon Prescriptions, said CMHA President and CEO Ray Gorman. With the building complete, Gorman said he sees CMHA as a key partner in developing New Britain’s downtown, which has seen other recent developments, including new apartments.

“I think [our presence has] been a really positive impact for a number of people: the city, local merchants and certainly us,” Gorman said.

Consolidating space

CMHA, which has 375 total employees, bought the Plaza building to consolidate much of its leased real estate, Gorman said.

The nonprofit, which earns about $30 million a year in revenue, also had the financial wherewithal to buy an office building.

After the CCSU deal foundered, Gorman jumped on the opportunity to buy the Plaza building, which was empty aside from two tenants — the Social Security Administration and state Workers Compensation Commission. The move put about 200 CMHA employees in downtown New Britain each weekday; remaining staff work in separately housed residential programs, and in Waterbury and Torrington offices.

[Read more: HBJ examines developments in CT towns, cities]

But Gorman also understood the dual concerns some neighbors had about sharing the downtown area with an organization providing mental health services, and allowing the large property to be sold to a nonprofit exempt from paying city property taxes. There was also some pushback from local merchants, he said.

New Britain, a city of about 75,000 people with a poverty rate twice the state average, had a downtown grand list of just about $55 million in 2018, Amodio said. But Gorman pointed out that CMHA intends to lease out all vacant space in the building, which will create taxed revenue. CMHA also pays taxes on parking spaces it leases, and plans to lease out space in the Plaza building, the revenue from which is taxable. More importantly, Gorman said the center-city location is by design.

Photo | Contributed
The Plaza building in downtown New Britain was formerly owned by ACMAT.

“We are firm believers that [mental health organizations] must be visible in the community so that you can begin to erase the notion that mental health patients have some kind of defect,” said Gorman, adding that the New Britain location offers myriad services, ranging from intensive group and individualized therapy for substance abuse issues to individual talk therapy and social groups for children and adults.

Since moving in, CMHA has gotten out into the community by sponsoring and participating in Pride and Black History Month community events as well as 5K runs and community panel discussions.

And creating a vibrant community atmosphere is especially important in 2020, a year in which some 200 new or renovated residential apartment units are scheduled to go online, Amodio said.

The latest project to debut was 20 new apartments in downtown’s historic Andrews building, 132 Main St.

CMHA’s presence didn’t provide the kind of vibe change that a college campus would have, Amodio said. But the organization has been a consistent partner, and a net positive, he said.

“What we’ve gotten instead is a corporate sponsor that supports everything we do, and I think they’re doing a good job at being a good neighbor,” Amodio said.

Adapting to coronavirus

The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t hit CMHA as hard as others, Gorman said. The organization received about $3.5 million in federal and state relief funds, and CMHA hasn’t laid off or furloughed any employees. The ability to move many services online or over the phone has allowed the nonprofit to keep running most of its programs remotely, and bodes well for the future of telehealth, Gorman said.

CMHA is on track to complete its building renovation this fall, when it will open a 1,500-square-foot community access space, where people will be able to inquire about mental health services, 24 hours a day. It also may use space currently occupied by the Social Security Administration and Workers Compensation Commission — both of which are scheduled to leave this year when their leases run out — to host conferences.

“We want to be an integral part of the downtown revival,” Gorman said.

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