John Bennett, executive director of GCASA, has gone in a short time from the shock and disappointment he felt when people in the City of Batavia reacted with anger to a proposed social center at the former St. Nick's on Swan Street, to gratitude for the acceptance the same proposal for another property in the Town of Batavia.
Tuesday night there was a public hearing on a request for a special use permit to convert the former Bohn's Restaurant location on Clinton Street Road into a recreation center for people in recovery. There was no opposition and several people spoke in support of it. The Town of Batavia Planning Board subsequently passed all the necessary resolutions unanimously to give the project a green light.
"I'll say when I came to the town to meet with the town board originally, that I got a little choked up," Bennett said. "I got a little emotional because my reception was so different than what happened on the Southside in the city.
"(Town officials) were welcoming and they really had seemed to have an understanding of addiction and they said that this is needed in the community. I just feel blessed, actually, to be connected with this project and the town and they've welcomed us with open arms and they see the benefit of it."
The center will be the first of its kind in Batavia, a place where people who don't want to be an environment where beer, wine and liquor are part of the fabric of the party, and some people might show up with drugs. That's because the context of such an atmosphere makes it harder to resist the temptation to partake. Instead, they'll have a place to go to relax, socialize, make friends, and have a good time.
Several speakers at the public said the new center will make it easier for people in recovery to stay in recovery.
"The recovery center itself is it really a meet and greet," said Kathy Miller. "After you go in and you get treatment, you start living your life and you start getting normal, doing normal everyday things like get a job, buy a house, buy a car, have a baby -- living your life.
"You're not meeting anyone in recovery because now you're doing things and there's no place to go unless you can go into a recovery center. Then, when you're meeting other people, you don't have to say, 'hey, I'm in recovery,' because you already are there meeting people in recovery."
If you don't change the people you hang out with, Miller said, it's harder to stay in recovery.
"You need to change the people, places, and things around you," Miller said. "And sometimes that means your old friends, sometimes that's the people that are still doing the same old things they used to do. You have to find a new place. You have to find a way to live in it."
Jason Adams said a social and recreation center for people in recovery will be a game-changer for people locally. It will give them a place to engage in a variety of activities, watch sports on TV, or just hang out and talk, all without thinking about easy access to booze.
"The sky's the limit of what the program is available to do," Adams said.
The closest thing to an objection to the proposed recreation center on Clinton Street Road came from a nearby neighbor who said she supports the concept -- she understands the struggle of people in recovery because she's a cigarette smoker herself -- but was concerned that people using the center might loiter in the area or along the street, which could diminish her privacy.
A board member asked if a privacy fence would help. She said it would.
As soon as the public hearing was completed, the woman left.
During the board discussion of the project, Code Enforcement Officer Dan Lang looked up her property on a parcel map and said it was really too far from the actual Bohn's property to warrant a privacy fence.
There is a parcel in between the Bohn's Restaurant property and the woman's property, and that property, Bennett revealed is subject of a negotiation with the town -- GCASA may swap that property with the town to settle some tax issues.
The board agreed to approve the project without the privacy fence, but left the door open to revisit the issue should circumstances make it more apparent a fence is needed.
Bennett said he totally understands the concern about people loitering and smoking cigarettes outside. He's aware of complaints about similar activity outside the GCASA property along East Main Street.
The state agency that oversees drug rehabilitation facilities has always frowned on designated smoking areas on the property of such programs or facilities but that policy is changing. GCASA has been given the approval to have a designated smoking area on the Bohn's property. He said he's working on getting approval for smoking areas on all of GCASA's properties.
"I think smoking in general in front of restaurants and other buildings the community is an eyesore and we working to remedy that," Bennett said.
Bennett said the community opposition to GCASA opening a recovery center on Swan Street caught him by surprise but admitted it may have been his own fault. He wasn't prepared for the opposition and therefore did a poor job of setting the stage and explaining the project.
At a 400 Towers community meeting where residents expressed a great deal of anger about the proposal, he could barely say anything to try and explain the project, there were so many other voices dominating the conversation.
"I guess I didn't get out ahead of this in terms of really getting out and educating people because it was such a quick grant that we got," Bennett said. "And I really guess I didn't think people would have an issue with a recovery center because people in recovery really are just like you and I.
"If you stood in a room full of -- I bet you couldn't tell tonight who was in recovery and who wasn't, right? And the methadone clinic kind of went off without a hitch, so I just kind of thought the recovery center would, too.
"I didn't really see people being upset and angry about this. I missed that and then I should have done a couple more things to educate the public, especially down on the Southside."
Photo: Sue Gagne and John Bennett.