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Hartford Agency Gives Up The Fight

Past Turmoil Undoes North End Nonprofit

May 3, 2006
By MATT BURGARD, Courant Staff Writer

After struggling for years with accusations of mismanagement, internal dissent and financial turmoil, the once-venerated Hartford community group ONE/CHANE is shutting down.

In its heyday, the nearly 20-year-old North End nonprofit organization was widely respected for helping people overcome some of Hartford's most intractable problems, from joblessness to lack of educational opportunities to the need for youth programs.

But in recent years, the agency has become synonymous with dysfunction and petty infighting. For its current leaders, the specter of disrepute became too much to overcome - at a membership meeting Monday night, they announced that ONE/CHANE is shutting down for good.

"This is a tragedy for a lot of people who live in this city, and you really have to scratch your head and say, `How did it get to this point?'" said Steven Harris, a former city councilman who took over as chairman of ONE/CHANE's board of directors last fall.

Mayor Eddie Perez, who as a young neighborhood activist helped found the organization in 1987, said he was disappointed that it couldn't stay afloat.

"When we started it, we were trying to address some pressing needs in the community, and those needs have only grown since then," he said. "I hope someone will step up to do the work that needs to be done."

Harris said board members agonized over their unanimous decision to shut down ONE/CHANE, but that its organizational hardships and history of poor management made securing vital contributions from corporations and other donors all but impossible.

"Nobody wanted to take a chance on ONE/CHANE based on the agency's recent history, and based on the situation in the economy right now," he said. "It's hard enough right now to get donations if you're a healthy nonprofit. But if you have a cloud hanging over you like ONE/CHANE, it's doubly hard."

Harris and other ONE/CHANE leaders traced the downfall to a change in its mission during the 1990s, when it began to invest in real estate in an effort to provide low-cost housing for residents. Under former Executive Director Larry Charles, the agency became bogged down in allegations of financial mismanagement as its stock of housing fell into disrepair.

"We didn't get into this business to be slumlords, but that's what we were becoming," board member Eric Crawford said. "We needed to get out of housing and back into programming for our young people, but it was too much to crawl out from under."

Charles was fired in 2004, a decision that was meant to give the agency a clean slate but divided much of the membership and led to protracted infighting. Charles' successor, Frederick Smith, said he spent the past two years trying to convince potential donors that the agency was on the rebound.

"I gave it my best shot, but the damage to the organization was done long before I took over," Smith said. "We went around to funders, but the answer was always the same: no, no, no."

Andrea Comer, a city school board member and a longtime member of ONE/CHANE, said the decision to shut the agency down leaves a "huge void" in the North End, one she hopes will be filled soon by a new, community-minded nonprofit outfit.

"Every day we go without offering services to people means one more kid or one more family that slips through the cracks," she said.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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