Neighbors raise concerns about drug counseling center

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Although counselors tried to calm fears about a planned drug and alcohol counseling center, more than 30 neighbors and nearby business owners tried unsuccessfully Monday night to convince Salem City Council not to allow the use in their back yard.

Mount Regis Center plans to hold small group therapy sessions in the afternoons and evenings in the former Trust Point Insurance building at 120 Roanoke Boulevard. The clinic would not dispense drugs such as methadone – which Mount Regis doesn’t use – and all participants would have Breathalizer tests daily and periodic drug screens, administrators assured.

“These people aren’t on medication,” Mount Regis Clinical Director Heidi Taylor told Council on May 22. “They don’t have mental problems. They have a drinking problem.” Early in the remarks during the public hearing and at the previous Salem Planning Commission meeting Taylor characterized outpatients as “people like you and I, doctors, lawyers, teachers.”

She and Lisa Hatcher, Mount Regis’ Business Development Director, said outpatient group participants would be Level 1 and Level 2 substance abusers or family, people in the early stages of substance abuse. They are struggling with stress and anxiety, staff said. “These people usually have jobs and are still functioning,” Taylor emphasized.

The for-profit treatment agency has had two staff working out of that building since the old Mount Regis Center burned in January. Taylor said the groups would typically be between eight and 14 people, and meet on weekdays either from 1-4 p.m. or 6 -9 p.m., three times a week for five to eight weeks.

The new Mount Regis residential treatment location opened March 1 on Elizabeth Campus near the YMCA, but plans always were to have the therapy sessions in a separate building – and when fire damage is repaired to the one-story section of Mount Regis on Kimball Avenue, the clinic would move back there, administrators told Council. It’s the estimated two years between now and then which worries neighbors.

The first speaker out of 13 during the one-hour public hearing was the Rev. Adrian E. Dowell, senior pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church. The church is located one block behind the Boulevard location. His congregation’s concern was for the safety women and children and elderly members who attend Wednesday night services, in particular. That was before he learned the clinic would not be dispensing methadone.

Joe Babba, owner of Joe’s Deli across the street from the clinic, spoke twice, raising the concern of possible loiterers who might come toward his business and customers. “My business is doing really good and I’d hate to just see it go away,” he said. He also said he did not feel the Mount Regis clinic “is going to be a good fit for Salem.”

Babba was concerned about the number of children who walk along the street on Friday afternoons after school at Andrew Lewis Middle School, including his own. “I do not want to see something happen to a child because of this,” he said, referring to possible anger issues from clinic participants raised by speaker Anthony Cummings, a probation officer.

When she spoke a second time, Heidi Taylor said there would be no loitering and that participants would be in sessions inside the building the entire time. Answering a question raised by citizens, she said if anyone failed an alcohol test, Salem Police would be called and the person held until authorities came to escort him or her away.

Some of the other speakers who raised concerns included:

  • Gene Bayne, who owns the former optometrist office building where Joe’s Deli is located. “These folks are not always doctors and teachers…my concern is about what are known as ‘street people.’ He referred to a methadone center in another community, and said he feared the Mount Regis clinic “will create a nasty mess. This is not what we consider a comfortable arrangement.”
  • Counsel for First Community Bank on Colorado Street, which shares a parking lot with the Mount Regis clinic and overlaps hours with it. Parking issues were one of his concerns. The clinic has 15 spaces, and sometimes bank spaces are being used now, he said. He was concerned with “safety and comfort of people withdrawing cash from the ATM at night.” He asked what other areas and buildings Mount Regis had looked at as possible locations for the clinic for two years.
  • Richard Smith, owner of Spartan Silk Screen, raised similar issues. “I don’t think this is the right location for what they want to do.”

People who addressed council in favor of the clinic location included Mount Regis employees:

  • Bill Loope, who said he had looked for sites for the clinic, and had looked at “at least 80,” and could not find a reasonable space for lease and for only two years. He also said “Kids walked by Mount Regis on Kimball Avenue for years” with no danger. “People who use the services of Mount Regis are not drunk or high. We provide a critical service.”
  • Peter Pennington, Admission Director, who pointed out Mount Regis uses an assessment tool to determine whether its level of care is appropriate for people. He said he is a 2008 graduate of Mount Regis treatment. “I am one of those people.”

Before their unanimous 5-0 vote, several Council members explained why they believe Mount Regis’ clinic and treatment center services are important.

Vice Mayor Bill Jones said for 15 years growing up he lived next to Mount Regis on Kimball Avenue and his parents have lived there for 50 years. He remembered only one incident. “I understand people’s fears…I have never worried about my mother’s well-being…We have to work together.”

Councilmember Jane Johnson, whose jewelry store is north of the site on College Avenue, said, “I’m more worried about the people who aren’t paying to get help, who are selling gold to feed their habit.” She said after the meeting she had a man who looked high on drugs come in her store and offer to sell her pyrite, or “fool’s gold,” for money.

Councilmember Jim Chisom said “If this was not for Level 1 and 2, I would have greater concerns. I’m not sure there could be a safer place to have this,” he said, referring to the closeness of the Salem Police Department, and Mayor Randy Foley agreed.

“Most churches host Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. I don’t think that’s any different,” Foley added.