Derby and Ansonia officials are talking about repurposing the VARCA building at the corner of Coon Hollow Road and Chatfield Street for municipal use.
The building could include space for a regional senior citizen center for Ansonia and Derby.
The facility is almost 30,000 square feet, so there are a ton of municipal opportunities for the property, according to the Derby Mayor’s Office.
The property transfer is happening because VARCA (Valley Association for Retarded Children and Adults, Inc) is closing later this month. The building is on city property, part of a more than 40-year-old deal between the nonprofit and the city. The agreement included a provision saying that if VARCA closes, the land goes back to Derby.
The nonprofit organization had 81 employees and 20 volunteers in 2016, according to 2017 federal tax filings.
VARCA Inc., and its subsidiary, George Hegyi Industries, is a sheltered workplace and training facility for people with special needs — a trailblazing concept pioneered locally in the late 50s by local parents of kids with special needs.
But VARCA relies heavily on government grants — it received about $700,000 in grants in 2016, according to the nonprofit’s tax documents — and those tax dollars are no longer flowing to programs like VARCA, according to Andrew Baklik, Derby Mayor Rich Dziekan’s chief of staff.
Instead of having people with special needs all working in one place — the client-workers did an array of packaging and assembling jobs — there has been a long push to “mainstream” people with developmental challenges into the workplace at large, with different types of support.
“The push to close sheltered workshops has been going on for years,” said Dominick Thomas, a Derby native and prominent local attorney who serves on VARCA’s nonprofit board of directors. “The motivation is good, but we’ll see what the follow through is.”
Thomas’ involvement with VARCA runs deep. The organization played an important role in his sister Rosemarie’s life. She had Down’s Syndrome, and VARCA was a dignified place to work and socialize — a place to make friends, hold pageants and picnics, a vital and vibrant community for people with special needs.
In the 1950s, Thomas scraped tiles off the floor when VARCA was getting ready to set up on West Fourth Street in Derby. The late George Hegyi was a key player in creating the organization’s mission.
Click here for an overview of VARCA’s history in Derby.
The property at 5 Coon Hollow Road, next to the city’s Department of Public Works, was given to VARCA in 1968 as part of a deal with the city.
The building was dedicated to Hegyi in 1971. Former U.S. Vice President Hubert Humphrey spoke at the dedication ceremony, pointing how important VARCA and its families were to promoting the betterment of people with special needs.
At the time Humphrey was representing Minnesota in the U.S. Senate.
“Too many of our nation’s six million mentally retarded citizens are hidden away from the world in inadequate, outdated facilities which are, in fact, massive human warehouses,” Humphrey said at the time.
Click here to read Humphrey’s complete remarks.
“VARCA was an effort to deinstitutionalize people,” Thomas said. “It’s sad to see it go.”
A spokeswoman for the state Department of Developmental Services said in an email that the agency, along with the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, has been shifting focus away from “sheltered” work environments to other types of vocational models for people with special needs.
VARCA currently supports 41 people with special needs, according to the state. They are being transferred to more modern work-training programs.
The transition started in 2012, she said.
Because of the gradual transition away from “sheltered” programs, funding for VARCA from the Department of Developmental Services has dipped $147,644 — from $8646,627 to $698,983 — since 2013.
Thomas was scheduled to meet with Derby officials and the city’s corporation counsel Thursday (April 5) to finalize how the property will revert to Derby.
Baklik, the mayor’s chief of staff, said Mayor Rich Dziekan made inquiries to see if there was a way to keep VARCA going in Derby, but the ship had already sailed.
The city doesn’t have concrete plans for the building, but the Dziekan administration has been talking to Ansonia Mayor David Cassetti’s administration about creating some type of regional use for the building.
A senior center would be a natural fit there, Baklik and John Marini, Ansonia’s corporation counsel, both said.
Ansonia and Derby have been talking about a regional senior center as a way to save money for at least a decade, and various spots have been floated since 2009.
Derby will not have to spend money to purchase the building.
However, engineers need to inspect the building to gauge its condition, so there’s no info as to whether additional work will be needed. It’s too early to say how much it could cost to repair, renovate or retrofit the place.
Baklik said Derby also is considering moving the Derby Housing Authority offices to the building. Everything is on the table, Baklik said — even Derby City Hall.
The seat of Derby’s government currently sits at the corner of Main and Elizabeth streets, taking up prime real estate that could be attractive for a business, Baklik said. The same can be said for the Derby Senior Center building, which sits on Main Street proper, Baklik said.
Derby is also looking to acquire land across the street from VARCA on Coon Hollow Road for additional parking, Baklik said. The Regional Water Authority is also looking at Derby-owned land in the same area to build a water tank, a proposal that has been in the planning stages for years.
“There are already some great elements in the VARCA building that we’ll be able to piggy-back off,” Baklik said.