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Deal at risk for young women's treatment center in Vergennes

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Posted on January 9, 2014 |
By Andy Kirkaldy



VERGENNES — The proposal to convert the former Vergennes nursing home at 1 Alden Place into a treatment center for troubled teen girls and young women has hit a major snag — a dispute between the property’s seller and its contracted buyer.

The sale of the former Briarwood Nursing Home to Valley Vista, which operates a 10-year-old, 80-bed substance-abuse treatment center in Bradford, is either off or on hold, according to versions offered by building owner John Laberge or Valley Vista co-owner Rick DiStefano.

Laberge alleged that after a series of delays Valley Vista failed to meet conditions of the sale, including picking up daily expenses of $100 while the deal was waiting to close, including his mortgage interest costs while the sale was postponed.

“They backed out of the last deal as of a week ago,” Laberge said on Tuesday. “I listed it yesterday with another Realtor. As far as I’m concerned, the deal is dead.”

That’s not the way DiStefano sees it.

“We believe we have a valid purchase and sale agreement,” he said.

DiStefano said closing on the deal has proven to be difficult.

“We have been trying to complete the purchase of this building for two years,” DiStefano said. “Every time we come to an agreement on price, the price moves.”

What is clear is Valley Vista’s proposed Vergennes program is at risk. Valley Vista planned to treat at 1 Alden Place — which DiStefano said is the only suitable site in the area — up to 19 teens and young women experiencing problems with substance abuse and self-injuring behavior. Given the area’s problems with drug addiction and crime, city officials and most residents had welcomed Valley Vista’s proposal.

“We hoped to have our program in there with 35 employees a year and a half ago,” DiStefano said. “(It’s) a much-needed program for Vermont adolescents … We have a great use for the building.”

In Laberge’s version, the delays are due to Valley Vista’s problems getting all of its needed ducks in a row to operate the program.

Valley Vista clinical director Craig Smith told the Independent last March the company needed program approval from the new Green Mountain Care Board; Department of Children and Families approval for the facility, staffing patterns, and staff certifications; a Department of Labor and Industry fire safety inspection; and time to train new staff. Smith said then he expected everything to be lined up by summer, fall at the latest.

Laberge cites those issues.

“They started asking for extensions (of the closing date), and then they stopped paying the expenses,” Laberge said.

DiStefano said Valley Vista has its DCF and fire safety approval, and did not file its Green Mountain Care application only because of the sale uncertainties. He said Valley Vista paid Laberge’s building costs from late in 2011 until this past summer, and only stopped when Laberge rejected another deal for more money than the original purchase price. 

“We felt we weren’t going to continue to put money into it,” DiStefano said.

He claimed that Valley Vista has three times increased the agreed-upon sales price because Laberge told them he could not sell the property and still have cash left over to pay liens against it, the sales commission and his capital gains tax.

“He tells us he can’t afford to close at this number,” DiStefano said.

The most recent offer, DiStefano said, the most generous of all, was for the appraised value of the building, would cover all of Laberge’s costs, and was final.

“I did tell him it was our best offer,” DiStefano said.

The former Briarwood Manor nursing home has sat vacant since June 2010 when, doing business as the Alden Place Residential Care Home LLC, the Vermont Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living revoked its license for 23 alleged violations of state code.

Laberge afterward listed the 9,146-square-foot building with Burlington firm Redstone at $1.2 million.

Valley Vista hopes to operate the center as the Helping Others Pursue Empowerment (HOPE) program. In an earlier interview with the Independent, DiStefano cited a 2005 National Mental Health Association study indicating that one out of 200 girls between the ages of 13 and 19 regularly practices “self-injurious behaviors,” and Vermont and Addison County’s issues with heroin and addictive painkillers has been well documented.

Laberge said he is ready to move on from Valley Vista’s plan and has listed the property with Lang McLaughry Spera for $1.1 million. He believes it might make an excellent hospice center, such as the Vermont Respite House in Williston. 

“We’re going to try to make it into a place like the place in Williston,” Laberge said.

DiStefano said he has other ideas: Valley Vista, like Laberge, has consulted with an attorney.

“We’re very hopeful, even after a prolonged legal battle, to eventually be in Vergennes,” DiStefano said.

Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@addisonindependent.com.

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