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Group's Future Up In The Air

ONE/CHANE Considers Closing

October 29, 2005
By JEFFREY B. COHEN, Courant Staff Writer

Almost two years after firing its longtime executive director, and after a season of internal political discontent, a once-powerful Hartford community organization is considering shutting down.

The board of ONE/CHANE will hold a meeting Nov. 7 to let its members know the state of its affairs. All options will be on the table, officials said, from figuring out a way to move forward to closing the organization for good.

"Our purpose was supposed to be that voice, that helping hand for residents in north Hartford," said Steven Harris, who took over just last week as the organization's board chairman. "And we have no programming. We're just living hand to mouth right now."

"ONE/CHANE, when it started out, it empowered people. It empowered people in terms of how to deal with government bureaucracies. It showed people how to stand up and advocate for things they thought were important," Harris said.

"But now you're struggling just to keep the lights on and the doors open. And what good is a community organization if it can't offer programs?"

The organization has been beset by an array of problems over the past several years and is now virtually broke. The once-revered North End community group now can't even pay the $6,500 to get a final copy of a financial audit it commissioned.

The group's funding sources have dried up. On top of the agency's other problems, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal is conducting an investigation of the agency, which - even if it goes nowhere - has left some financial sponsors skittish.

Within the past few months, ONE/CHANE submitted a letter of intent, informing the Hartford Collaborative for Community Organizing that it was going to apply for community organizing funding. The collaborative's steering committee did not respond favorably to the letter.

"They were not invited to apply for funds," said Andrea Pereira, a senior program director for Local Initiatives Support Corp. in Connecticut, which administers the community organizing dollars. "The understanding was that there was potential legal action and potential financial penalties attached to that legal action."

Formed in 1987, ONE/CHANE made its presence known in Hartford by rallying against plans to bring a casino to the city, speaking out for the health of the neighborhood and against an expansion of a city dump, calling for nonviolent campaigns in response to city shootings, and more.

The group was about more than advocacy. By the mid-1990s, the group had 24 block clubs; it had placed nearly 200 youths in summer jobs; it had helped more than three dozen families move into their own homes. By 1998, the nonprofit agency had completed nearly $10 million worth of rehabilitated or new construction in the northern part of the city.

"ONE/CHANE, just that it's name is recognizable says something about the organization," said Marilyn Rossetti, executive director of Hartford Areas Rally Together, a South End advocacy group.

But by 1999, some residents and community leaders began to cry foul, as ONE/CHANE - once the voice of the people - decided to quiet itself and drop its opposition to a plan to expand the landfill off I-91 in exchange for a nearly $10 million settlement.

The deal eventually fell through, but not before then-Executive Director Larry Charles came under scrutiny for his decision, one which he defended by saying that it furthered the cleanup of the landfill and set community programs in motion.

By early 2004, ONE/CHANE and Charles were facing further scrutiny, after a management consultant's report found that Charles had lost the confidence of the funding community. The problem, the consultant said, was simple mismanagement.

The organization's income had dropped from $1.3 million in the year that ended June 30, 1999, to roughly half that three years later. In March 2004, the board fired Charles. The news has hardly improved since.

"In my opinion, once ONE/CHANE got into housing, and got away from its core mission...," Harris said. "I think that's where we started to have a problem."

These days, Frederick E. Smith, the new executive director and its only paid employee, says the organization needs $22,000 a month to live and have a fully functioning staff. He wouldn't say how much it actually has, but Smith did say the agency doesn't have the $6,500 to pay for an audit it requested. He would not say how much he is being paid.

Given all that, many expect the Nov. 7 meeting to be pivotal.

"There is a new face to the organization, but there is still a cloud of several years of history that's hanging over it ... that I and the board that I have working with me now have nothing to do with," Smith said. "We're going to paint the picture and say, `You have options.' And [shutting down] is an option."

Harris concurred.

"The board, between now and then, is going to look at that option very strongly," Harris said. "ONE/CHANE is a valuable asset to the community, but, to be very honest with you, it's like trying to raise the Titanic."

Both Smith and Harris said they would prefer for ONE/CHANE to continue. So would Sheri Frazier, another board member.

"It would be a shame to see one of our only prominent black community organizations leave the community," Frazier said. "It would be a sad day."

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.

| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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