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Rescue Mission eyes defunct nursing home as new center

December 6, 2018

BRIDGEPORT — The Bridgeport Rescue Mission, which for years has cared for the area’s hungry, homeless and addicted at 1088 Fairfield Ave., plans to move many of its services to a shuttered Park Avenue nursing home.

“It’s a big deal for us,” Terry Wilcox, the non-profit’s executive director, said Wednesday of the pending purchase of the former Astoria Park facility at 725 Park Ave. “We have a mortgage agreement. We’re hoping to close on the building in January.”

Last week, the mission received approval from the Bridgeport Planning and Zoning Commission for the project — with modest strings attached. Zoning officials want more trees planted and outdoor space for residents.

“We’ll do what we have to to make the building work,” Wilcox said.

The financially troubled Astoria Park, located between Black Rock Avenue and Lewis Street, closed two years ago after the state Superior Court took control of its operations. The site is adjacent to Optimus Health Care’s primary care building on Black Rock Avenue.

“We adopted a strategic plan three years ago to buy a large building and turn it into a community care center,” Wilcox recalled. “And in the process of looking at large old factory-type buildings that would be re-purposed, we recently discovered this former nursing home. (It is) ideal and it required very little changes.”

Optimus’ chief executive officer, Ludwig Spinelli, sent a letter to zoning officials in support of the mission, writing, “I see great synergy with our services and our ability to meet the medical, dental or behavioral health needs” of the mission’s clients.

Before detailing what programs will be moved from Fairfield Avenue and other mission properties to 725 Park. Ave., Wilcox emphasized three that will not — the temporary emergency shelter for homeless men, men’s supportive housing and the women’s shelter. The first two programs will remain at 1088 Fairfield Ave. and the women’s shelter on Sylvan Avenue.

“That needs to be clear. That is not being put into the Park Avenue property,” Wilcox said.

The former Astoria Park will house the mission’s faith-based, nine-month residential substance abuse recovery program, whose graduates can move in to the supportive housing as they seek employment and re-establish their lives. Wilcox said the current recovery program operates 50 beds and can now expand to 150 beds.

“We’re going to be able to take more men and women into that program,” he said, noting female addiction treatment clients will be moved to Park Avenue from a women’s center at 385 Barnum Ave.

The mission will also relocate its meal service to 725 Park Ave.

“At 1088 Fairfield Ave., we have served three meals a day, 365 days a year for the 18 years we’ve had that building,” Wilcox said. “We have also given away clothing at 1088 and we’re going to be able to have free clothing distribution regularly at that facility (Astoria Park).”

The refurbished nursing home will also include what Wilcox called a “free choice food pantry.”

“In the food pantry world, there’s ‘choice’ and pantries where you just get a bag of food and don’t get to choose what’s in the bag,” he said.

Lastly, the mission’s administrative offices, located at 87 Washington Ave., will be folded into the Park Avenue site.

Wilcox said the $8 million to $10 million project is being funded in part by a $2 million gift from philanthropist and retired Playtex president Joel Smilow of Southport. So, Wilcox said, the completed facility will be renamed the Joel Smilow Care Center at Bridgeport Rescue Mission.

The mission has not always had luck expanding. In 2012, Wilcox received zoning approvals to move its women’s shelter to the former Blank and Blank law offices at 1150 Fairfield Ave. But the mission could not afford the lead and asbestos remediation and wound up selling the property.

“We’ve had this building (Astoria Park) studied” by environmental firms and lawyers, Wilcox said. “So we’re quite comfortable with the building being ready for use.”

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