ATHOL – The topic of social service agencies in downtown Athol in general, and the North Quabbin Recovery Center in particular, sparked in-depth discussion at the last downtown vitality committee meeting on the 13th. July. Heather Bialecki-Canning, executive director of the North Quabbin Coalition community, which operates the processing facility, was on hand to point out that these agencies add to – rather than hurt – a bustling downtown.
“I thought it was important,” said Bialecki-Canning, “to officially introduce ourselves to this committee because we have partnered in many ways with the city of Athol, as well as with the Vitality Committee.”
She said the processing center, located on Main Street, and the Coalition’s main office, located on Exchange Street, have been and will continue to be active in downtown activities, including promotional events like the Fourth Friday events taking place this summer. The coalition has occupied a building opposite the police station for seven years, she explained, while the recovery center has been located in the Pequoiag building for three years.
“I thought it was really time for us to talk about our positioning in the downtown area,” said Bialecki-Canning, “and how we can partner with this committee to help strengthen the elements on which you are working with. The coalition’s ultimate goal – our mission – is to improve the quality of life in North Quabbin.
She said that since the coalition was formed in 1984, the organization has developed relationships across the region and has partnered with the city of Athol on several occasions. While wanting to serve as a support for the downtown vitality committee, she continued, the group also wants to “equalize” the representation of all residents of the community.
“So when we look at downtown,” Bialecki-Canning explained, “we really look at downtown holistically. We have a lot of for-profit businesses, but our downtown has changed a lot.
“We have added health and social service organizations to it. There is a dance studio. There is a daycare. There are banks. The diversity of our downtown says a lot about Athol’s makeup. So, we really want to help be a voice in this conversation. “
Bialecki-Canning said that in addition to providing alcohol and drug addiction recovery services, the Recovery Center provides a number of other services to residents of Athol. She also noted that the coalition has been active in the municipal vulnerability planning process and also oversees the North Quabbin Loan Fund.
“We want to spread recovery, well-being and general morale in our downtown area because it’s contagious,” she said. “We also think it’s going to help create things like businesses and help drive people downtown. We have so many people attending the North Quabbin Recovery Center table on the Fourth Friday that are not there for our services, they are there for fun.
Bialecki-Canning added, however, that the Recovery Center was not initially greeted downtown with open arms, citing negative comments posted on social media, including some by members of the Downtown Vitality Committee.
“When we officially rented the Pequoiag space for the recovery center,” she told DVC President Mary Holtorf, “you took to Facebook that night and definitely let it be known that you didn’t weren’t a fan and it disappoints you incredibly.
“We don’t want to create bigger divides. We want to understand how we can work together and talk about the positivity we brought when people are working towards common goals. Whatever your goal on Main Street is, the goal is that we want a safe, accessible Main Street that people love to come and be a part of.
Holtorf said his comments stemmed from his general concern about the loss of downtown retailers.
“We’re losing more, unfortunately,” she said, “because of Covid and other events. We’re on the verge of really losing critical mass.
“I think what I’m here to talk about,” replied Bialecki-Canning, “is how we can help some of the things that we already have in place. We have networks. We have people. We have the infrastructure in place that will allow us to really help make it clear that the Downtown Vitality Committee isn’t just about supporting for-profit businesses – although that’s an important part – it’s about of the vitality of the city center.
“When I first got involved,” Holtorf said, “there were all kinds of social service agencies in the city center. I am still worried about this. And I’m concerned about the Salvage Center in what I consider to be the main Main Street retail location.
“I think there has to be a healthy mix for any community to grow healthy,” said Bialecki-Canning.
Greg Vine can be contacted at [email protected]