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A place for everyone

March 1, 2009
by Douglas J. Edwards, Editor-in-Chief
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A human services provider creates a community center for people with and without disabilities

Alternatives unlimited, inc.'s whitin mill complex

Alternatives Unlimited, Inc.'s Whitin Mill complex; photos by Rich Morgan Photography
Several years ago Alternatives Unlimited, Inc., had a big problem-a 32,369-square-foot problem to be exact.
The provider of employment, housing, and day habilitation services for people with psychiatric and developmental disabilities in central Massachusetts couldn't find a buyer for an old mill complex it had used as a sheltered workshop since the 1970s. In 2001, the organization moved its employment programs into storefront locations in the community and implemented public-outreach programs at these career centers. For example, Alternatives created an art gallery at its Uxbridge location. By inviting the community in, Alternatives increased public understanding of and interest in its mission and created more opportunities for social integration for the people it serves. In fact, employers began approaching Alternatives with job opportunities for its clients.

So the organization dared to dream big and wondered if it could replicate the concept on a much larger scale by turning the mill (built in 1826) and several other historic buildings into a place everyone could enjoy and where people with disabilities could have opportunities to further integrate into the community.

Five years after the planning began, last May Alternatives held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Whitin Mill complex, an environmentally friendly arts center that now houses:

  • Alternatives' headquarters

  • Three two-bedroom apartments for people with psychiatric and developmental disabilities

  • An employment program

  • A theater and artisan spaces

  • Museum and educational spaces

  • Space for a 60- to 70-seat restaurant

The campus's name pays homage to the Whitin family and the industrial companies they operated at the mill and in the area through the mid-20th century. With the project Alternatives believes it is helping to redefine the role of human services providers in their communities.

“We are creating a new paradigm in human services that emphasizes community building, that generates reciprocity, and converts real estate capital, the mill, into what [Harvard professor] Robert Putnam calls ‘social capital’ for the people we serve but also for the larger community,” explains Alternatives Executive Director Dennis H. Rice, who views the mill complex as “an inclusive community treasure for the whole region to enjoy.”

Building support

With such a bold concept, though, did come concern that Alternatives would drift away from its core mission. Former board member Scott Rossiter wasn't sold on the project right away.

“I just thought, ‘Look, you guys are going to take your eye off the ball here. You have a mission of serving people. All of a sudden you're going to become real estate developers, and that's not a good thing,’” he recalls. “It took me a while to figure out they were trying to do so much more with this project than just be a real estate developer.”

In making the case to the community, Alternatives highlighted the following reasons for the Whitin Mill project:

  • To create multiple opportunities for the people it serves to develop community connections

  • To position Alternatives as an economic driver in the region, stimulating job creation, tourism, and local investment

  • To be environmentally responsible

  • To create a community “crossroads”

  • To preserve the area's history

  • To demonstrate its commitment to the community

Rossiter eventually became one of the project's biggest supporters, serving as the volunteer chair of its capital campaign. At small house parties to raise funds, Alternatives board member and service user Peg George shared her recovery story to encourage support. The $9.8 million project also was funded through loans, grants, and other sources (See “The financial nuts and bolts of renovating the mill” on page 24 for more details). In addition, Alternatives has raised about $100,000 by selling engraved pavers placed in the complex's 5,000-square-foot plaza/outdoor labyrinth, where Alternatives plans on hosting farmers' markets and theatrical presentations this summer. The pavers were donated to Alternatives, and such in-kind giving was important, too. “That plaza would have been a concrete plaza if somebody hadn't come through with in-kind support,” Rossiter acknowledges.

Arts focus

Spaces for the arts are a major component of the Whitin Mill complex, which includes art galleries, studios, a forge (built in 1782 and reconstructed in 1875) for glassblowing and blacksmithing, and the GB and Lexi Singh Performance Center, a 200-seat theater named after significant donors. In the past year Alternatives has hosted many events including craft fairs, concerts, exhibits of watercolor paintings of local mills and handcrafted bead jewelry, and performances of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire and Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. People with and without disabilities are involved in the productions. Further increasing its commitment to the arts, Alternatives helped start ValleyCAST!, Inc., an organization promoting local arts, culture, and education.