How and Why Did New Food Pantry Home Fall Through?

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Particularly during the strains placed on individuals during the Covid pandemic, the work of the Franklin Food Pantry had become even more visible. So, the idea of moving to a larger and more visible building made apparently made sense to the Food Pantry leadership, who bought the 100-year-old building at 138 East Central Street from Christine Bracco for $465,000 in April 2020.

But almost from the start, the dream seemed to fade, as through a glass darkly. Announced under the leadership of Director Lynn Calling, she and hired consultants spent several months planning the site’s future and, in Dec. 2020, were finally ready to go before the Planning Board. But the big expectations quickly began to deflate at the board’s Dec. 21 meeting.

Calling narrated a slideshow describing the Pantry’s mission and vision and why they needed that building. Their plans called for sandwiching a dumpster, truck loading areas, and 14 park spaces onto the small site and also called for removing vegetation at the rear of the building, including trees and replacing that with a fence.

The most immediate problem was abutters, who didn’t like removal of the vegetation, worried about dumpster odors, and above all, were concerned about vehicle traffic.

The Planning Board also expressed its own concerns, one of which was with the site itself, known to have pollution issues and listed as such in the public database of the Mass. Executive Office of Energy & Environmental Affairs. Indeed, BETA, the engineering firm employed by the town, “determined that this site was party to an activity and use limitation [and] while it is a possibly [sic] to provide a stormwater system on the site, any excavation greater than four feet would be at the purview of a licensed site professional.” In the end, the board’s objections came down to public safety and infrastructure.

The Food Pantry did eke out a small win – given their non-profit state, the Board agreed to waive the customary fee for applicants.

With a failure at the first bite at the apple, the Food Pantry planned a return, and did so on Feb 8, though Planning Board Chair Anthony Paula stated right off the bat that little had changed in the submission since December. He also noted that although applicants were looking for five variances, “It should have been six” because they were also asking to avoid the stormwater requirement. Further objections were made to the lack of snow storage (the Food Pantry promised to truck it off site after each storm), and trucks and traffic blocking streets or spilling over into neighboring properties were again raised as concerns.

Planning Board Associate member Jennifer Williams, according to the minutes, stated that she agreed with all that had been said by way of concerns and she indicated her specific concern about parking spot #1 as a safety hazard. The whole board went on to unanimously turn down the application as presented.

Following that setback, the Food Pantry went through a transition, the details of which are unclear at this writing, but Calling left the organization, some names and faces on the board changed, and board member Tina Powderly became director.

And, just a few weeks ago, the Food Pantry’s communications director Lynn Often stated that revised plans for the site were in the works and likely to be revealed in the near future.

And then came the announcement, posted quietly on the website, apparently earlier this week, and reported by Franklin Matters yesterday.

The announcements states:

The Board of Directors, at the recommendation of Franklin Food Pantry leadership, Franklin Food Pantry Building Committee, and the team of professionals hired to build out 138 East Central Street, has decided to put 138 East Central Street on the market for sale, effective immediately.

We are extremely disappointed that this property no longer meets the operational needs of FFP. We are appreciative of the hundreds of hours of work spent exploring every possible avenue to successfully open the building as the Pantry’s new location. Not only have staff and our team of architects, builders, engineers, traffic consultant, legal services, and site planning experts worked tirelessly to vet potential solutions, the public also has been incredibly supportive of this endeavor.

After almost 18 months of work, we concluded that while 138 East Central was a viable option for FFP pre-pandemic, Covid-19 so drastically changed our operations and programming that the property no longer allowed us to fully meet the needs of our neighbors.

Some of the new programs that this property was challenged to support include:

Curbside Distribution – shown to be incredibly important for our neighbors with health issues, mobility concerns, young children, constrained schedules etc.

Home Delivery – critical for our most vulnerable neighbors facing chronic disease, cancer treatments, transportation limitations, and other situations that restrict travel

Holiday Distributions – this program grew under Covid, adding a permanent Summer Distribution to augment the two winter distributions

We also faced logistical challenges on the site that would have limited the ability of our community to contribute to the community through the food drives or our community donation bin – both of which are key aspects of our success. Finally, a number of discretionary site planning requirements became evident. Meeting these would have drastically and negatively impacted our services.

We are actively pursuing other options for a new Franklin Food Pantry site. The limitations of our current site remain, and our reach has expanded beyond what our current site can do. We are grateful to Rockland Trust for allowing us to continue to operate under their roof – our neighbors rely on us, and them, to access support during difficult times. What we learned through this process is valuable and will be applied to the next site. While this pivot is a temporary change in direction, the strategic decision to move to a new location has not wavered and the project has not lost steam.

For all of those who financially supported our new building campaign, rest assured that it is happening. For all of those who provided your expertise, letters of support, time on our various Committees and continue to be Ambassadors to what we do every day – thank you. We take that commitment to our mission very seriously and will achieve our goal of a new space.

In the meantime, we continue to serve those who need us. Food insecurity isn’t merely a physical struggle, but a social, mental and emotional burden that FFP tries to meet with kindness, grace and humility. We will continue serving, every day, without waver, while we work to secure our new home.

Attempts were made starting mid-day on Friday to reach current director, Tina Powderly, former director Lynn Calling (who now works for another non-profit) and current acting board chair, Jim Roche as well as Middlesex Savings Bank. Those attempts have not been successful as of 11 pm Friday.

However, an individual with knowledge of the project, speaking off the record, stated that the purchase seems to have been financed with the help of Middlesex Savings Bank, an organization that donated some $330,000 in total to several food pantries in the region, including Franklin’s. The individual said it was surprising that a bank was willing to extend credit for a polluted site and speculated that this may have been accomplished with the help of a federal program that aims to get so-called “brownfields” (moderately polluted sites) cleaned up and back in use. The individual also noted the very compact nature of the site and its proximity to high road traffic areas made it problematic from the start.

Multiple sources, including local historian Joe Landry, have confirmed that the site was used for automotive businesses for many decades. It has also been unused and empty for many years.

A new or updated story will be developed next week as sources become available.

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