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DANBURY Greenery Cafe may close in December

October 9, 2018

DANBURY — A longtime Main Street institution that offers adults with disabilities an opportunity to gain professional experience could have to close its doors this December.

The Greenery Cafe is slated to close Dec. 5 as its nonprofit backer, Green Chimneys, prepares to end its partnership with the restaurant that has served lunch downtown since 1992.

The cafe offers adults with disabilities an opportunity to work part-time in a real-world job setting to learn personal, social and professional skills with the help of professional counselors.

Green Chimneys leaders have said they are reevaluating how much they can support the program amid declining state funding and growing programs at its campuses in Brewster and Carmel, N.Y., where the nonprofit operates a special education school and offers residential treatment for children and animal-assisted therapy.

“As much as it’s been an incredible asset to the clients who are able to benefit from working there, we have almost always traditionally operated at a deficit,” Chief Program Officer Lauren Bennett said of the Danbury cafe. “It’s not so much a restructuring, but it’s really an ongoing process of always evaluating our programs ... we also have a responsibility not just to the clients we serve but to all of our donors.”

After negotiations with state and local nonprofit leaders apparently failed to bring about a new funding plan for the cafe, Green Chimneys issued its final closing date to employees in a letter late last month.

But some advocates are still holding out hope that a stop-gap solution might be able to keep the restaurant open — and its longtime clients working — until another major donor might step up to fund the operation going forward.

Connecticut Youth Leadership Project leader John Gentile has offered using his group’s 501(c)3 as a new parent nonprofit to help support the cafe, although it cannot fund it alone, he said. Gentile’s adult son has autism and has worked at the cafe for years, so he hopes to negotiate any kind of solution with the state and Green Chimneys that keeps the doors open.

“We have to work with them to see how all this fits together and weigh our options to keep the place open, because I fear that if the doors close at the beginning of December, they’ll never open again,” he said.

“There’s hope. We’re not as optimistic as we were, but there’s still some optimism that we can find a way to keep this open. We haven’t reached the end of the rope, at least.”

Money issues

The Greenery Cafe was the brainchild of the late Green Chimneys founder Sam Ross, who died earlier this year, and former longtime Chimneys director Joe Whalen.

The state Department of Developmental Services has supported the program through funding to Green Chimneys, but that money has dialed back over the past several years, Bennett said.

Green Chimneys and the state did not provide details about the cafe’s budget, but Gentile has estimated the costs run over $100,000 per year.

“We’ve already cut every corner that could possibly be cut, it literally comes down to the basics of overhead and staffing,” Bennett said. “The funding we’ve received has never kept pace with the expenses to run these programs.”

Advocates for the operation lauded Green Chimneys’ decades-long commitment, even though it’s not self-sufficient, but lamented the nonprofit’s indication the cafe must close.

There are about 20 employees, including bottle recycling and landscaping work programs also funded through the cafe and those men and women with disabilities could have trouble finding other work, said Theresa Faria, a DDS employee who previously worked at the cafe.

“Does it make money? No,” she said. “But the point was to bring these individuals into the community, have exposure, be part of the community and go to work and feel great about themselves and feel totally like everyone else. The thought of them not going to work every day -- I’m beside myself.”

Possible solutions

Green Chimneys and state officials have all said they are open to a plan to keep the cafe open, but no new agreement has been set.

Green Chimneys officials originally told staff over the summer the cafe could close at the end of September, but that date was pushed back amid conversations about keeping it open and an outpouring of support from cafe fans on Facebook.

That has bought time for Gentile to try to open a new set of negotiations with both the state and Green Chimneys to try to come up with an alternate settlement, such as transitioning the cafe to Gentile’s nonprofit, or tapering off Green Chimneys’ funding through next until another provider steps up, he offered.

Both the state and Green Chimneys have suggested such a deal could be possible, but the program will ultimately have to shift to another certified state provider — which Gentile’s Youth Leadership Project does not qualify for, he said.

“In the event that Green Chimneys is no longer able to provide these supports, we would follow agency processes to transition program contracts to a different provider,” DDS spokeswoman Katie Rock-Burns said last week.

Mayor Mark Boughton said the city was aware of the plan to close the cafe but is not able to offer funding.

Gentile and advocates like Faria hope some kind of agreement can save it for the longtime employees like Gentile’s son, John Michael. He is 41 years old now and has worked three days a week at the cafe for years after he lost his job during Blockbuster’s downfall.

“They’re a great group of individuals there,” Gentile said. “If they lose the Greenery, they don’t really have much of anything because each are at different levels of abilities. Some will be able to be employed, but others will have a hard time.

“I’m willing to do whatever it takes to make the place more profitable to provide gainful employment for these young folks,” he said. “I think we can do something with the place to make it more viable, where somebody can’t say, ‘It’s costing me too much money.’ ”

zach.murdock@hearstmediact.com

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