The plan to put a mental health and substance abuse services center in Allentown is facing opposition from residents and businesses, who fear that it would encourage "unsavory" activities and people, and pose a threat to their homes, families and livelihood.
Horizon Health Services wants to purchase and redevelop the Alliance Advisory Group building at 600 Delaware Ave., turning the two-story red-brick office building into an outpatient facility staffed by 15 doctors, nurses, social workers and mental health counselors.
The 17,600-square-foot building would house services, such as diagnostic assessment and treatment, counseling, psychiatric care and prescription medication, recovery support and referrals – including for children and teenagers. Officials also want to expand the agency's child psychiatry services, which it currently offers only in North Buffalo, East Amherst and Orchard Park.
The agency, which serves 14,000 people annually, asserts that most patients it treats are facing anxiety, depression, trauma and alcoholism.
According to data for the first 10 months of the year, 82% of its mental health diagnoses and 45% of its substance abuse patients fall into those categories. At least half of all patients are seen through telehealth. And its CEO, Anne Constantino, said the agency has been getting "a lot of business support" during its outreach.
But that's not what opponents are focused on. They're worried about the opioid and cocaine addicts, who represent 26% and 13%, respectively, of the substance abuse patients. And while Horizon insists that it doesn't dispense methadone, and isn't opening that type of clinic, that's the clientele that neighbors are most worried about.
"The fact of the matter is that that is a significant part of it," said Jonathan L. White, an Allentown resident. "I would argue that it is still a medication-assisted treatment center. We have not seen any numbers that it is not so, nor have we seen any numbers that would show it would not grow over time."
Matthew Moscati, who lives down the street on Delaware with his wife and three children 12 and under, said such a facility runs counter to everything he and his family admire about Allentown, and why they chose to live there.
"People are increasingly returning to the city as not just singles and empty nesters, but also to raise families," said Moscati, the CEO of TRM Architects, whose office is a block away. "This proposed siting is in opposition of that."
One of the biggest opponents is Benderson Development Co., which has buildings on both sides of 600 Delaware – including its Residence Inn by Marriott, its offices at 570 and 584 Delaware, and two parking lots. Between those buildings, the company has 350 employees. "We have pre-existing businesses that are operating there," said Benderson Vice President Eric Recoon. "There are investments. There’s our employee base to concern ourselves with."
In particular, it's invested millions of dollars in the hotel, which draws guests for extended stays. "It's in an industry where guest experience is shared routinely through social media," said Recoon. "The presence of a facility such as this in and around the hotel is causing really great concerns. One single Travelocity posting is beyond devastating."
Even though the patients are seeking help and treatment, Recoon said, "there is an element that is unsavory that is associated with facilities like this," citing the drug dealers and others who "prey on folks" who are susceptible.
The bottom line, he said, the proposed Horizon facility is "just ill-suited to this section of Allentown."
"It's a good cause. It's the wrong location," Recoon said. "Everybody acknowledges that these types of social services are very important and vital to a community. They perform a great service and function. But at the end of the day, it's about what is appropriate and harmonious."
But Constantino dismissed the suggestion that Horizon should look elsewhere.
“Why should my patients be inconvenienced more than any other business?” she said. “It’s faulty logic to think that we should go to a place other than where people live and work. Our responsibility is to meet the need of our communities. Should we ask the bars to leave?”
Horizon is seeking a special-use permit from the Common Council to do so, with a public hearing on Tuesday.
Both White and Moscati say their resistance is not simply about a "not-in-my-backyard" or NIMBY argument.
Rather, they say, the problem is that there's already too much concentration of such services in and around Allentown. White said there are currently three medication-assisted treatment centers at Virginia and Tenth streets in the neighborhood, Main and Barker streets a half-mile away, and on Holden Street near the Central Park neighborhood.
"Allentown has traditionally been seen as a very welcoming area. We have been the only community to welcome social services agencies when no one else would," White said. "We're proud of that. But we don't believe we need to be the only location where these services are sited."
He criticized Horizon's failure to conduct outreach in the neighborhood in advance, as required by the state Office of Addiction Services and Supports for medication-assisted treatment centers. And he blamed the state, county and social-services agencies for not placing such services outside the central city and in other parts of the county, when the opioid and drug crises affect a much broader geographic area and population.
"The opioid crisis is one that affects everyone. It is probably the most democratic addiction crisis that we face today," White said. "These individuals come from all walks of life and they live in absolutely all corners of Erie County. Yet we are concentrating where they can get services in the same area."