When he heard about a restaurateur's idea to open a drug and alcohol treatment center at the Daniel Webster Farm, Floyd Sargent thought it would generate controversy around Franklin.
But eating breakfast and chatting with the other regulars at Mr. D's on Main Street every morning, he has yet to hear a negative word.
"I haven't heard any myself, and I get around quite a bit," said Sargent, a member of Franklin's planning board who owns a property maintenance business. "I was a little surprised."
Last week, a national conservation group bought the farm from developer Elmer Pease II. The Trust for Public Land plans to put agricultural easements on the land and sell most of the 140-acre parcel to neighboring farmer Dan Fife.
But the question of what to do with the property's seven buildings - including the historic Webster farmhouse and a 19th century orphanage - - is wide open. The Trust is a "bridge" organization, in the words of project manager Julie Iffland, which cobbles together money to buy land from developers and then looks for local interests to take over.
Alex Ray, who owns the Common Man restaurants, pitched his idea at a public meeting Nov. 3. He hopes to take out a 50-year lease on the buildings and said he would invest about $4 million into fixing them up.
Ray envisions three nonprofit, self-sustaining programs: A 28-day residential treatment center that would offer counseling to50 clients; a halfway house where recovering addicts could stay for six months; and a hospitality school that would offer two-week seminars.
At last week's meeting, hosted by the Franklin Historical Society, residents tossed out a wide variety of other ideas for the buildings, such as turning the complex into a college or making it a historical theme park.
Colin Cabot, president of the Webster Farm Preservation Association, says he continues to get feelers from other interested people, though no other proposals have been as complete as Ray's.
"There's nobody who's really come up with a plan that makes economic sense," Cabot said last week. "The logic of Alex Ray's proposal is impeccable. . . . Alex Ray is a great entrepreneur, and somebody who can bring that kind of energy to something is fantastic."
This week, Ray explained a bit more about where his idea came from. As a recovering alcoholic, he's seen first-hand the dearth of treatment facilities in New Hampshire, and he wants to help.
"I want to do something that makes me feel like I'm contributing," Ray said in an interview this week. "That I'm doing something other than just feeding people. Feeding people a little more than food."
A Growing Problem
Ray thought he would be presenting to a small group last week, maybe 8 or 10 people. When he got to the Franklin VFW hall and saw that the idea session drew about 80 residents, he hesitated.
"I said 'Oh man, I can't present this to them, because I might get ripe tomatoes in my face,'" Ray said. "By 10:30, after they all pitched, I figured, 'Well, I'm here, I might as well pitch it.'"
While he anticipates that "naysayers" may come forward to oppose bringing recovering drug addicts and alcoholics into town, Franklin mayor Dave Palfrey thinks that the school and treatment program would be good for Franklin's economy.
"I think it would be nice to get the buildings occupied, and Alex Ray had a nice idea that could be beneficial to Franklin, as well as the entire state," Palfrey said.
Experts say there is a desperate need for more addiction treatment programs in the state.
When she heard about Ray's idea, Cheryl Wilkie was "breathless."
"The need is overwhelming,"said Wilkie, a drug and alcohol counselor. "It would be an incredible asset to this community to have a place where people could go."
Wilkie, who works as a consultant for the Merrimack County Attorney's office, says she's constantly frustrated by the lack of treatment facilities. Just yesterday morning, she said, she got a call about a heroin addict with no place to go.
"To watch people suffer who are asking for treatment . . . I'm speechless," Wilkie said.
At the same time, Wilkie said, the problem has been getting worse, particularly in the last few years.
"I've been working in this field for 18 years, and in the past four years, I've been to more funerals, had more clients die, than I had in my whole career," she said.
Ray said he's seen many people who need help fighting an addiction.
"There's limited help out there,"Ray said. "(Programs are) dropping like flies, and the need isn't."
At least 14 treatment programs across the state closed between 1992 and 2002, according to New Futures, a nonprofit advocacy group.
Peter Powell, a friend of Ray's who serves on the board of New Futures, said that often a crisis leads to seeking help - help that is not only expensive, but also hard to find.
He was drawn into working on addiction issues after struggling to find help for someone close to him. "I spent two days looking on the Internet, making phone calls, trying to find a place somewhere in the country where this person could find help for their problem,"he said.
Ray's proposed treatment facility, which would take people who've already been through medical detox and give them intensive counseling for about a month, would require clients to pay up-front and out of pocket.
Powell said the problem of insurers refusing to pay for anything beyond detox is a serious one and something New Futures is looking at.
"It's like trying to send someone off to college and pay for the whole thing without loans," Powell said.
But at the same time, Powell said, "Alex doesn't want to wait for the world to be fixed before he starts providing treatment."
The Next Step
Ray is talking to the Trust for Public Land and the Webster Farm Preservation Association, a local group that will purchase the property from the TPL in April.
"Our first meeting was in the parking lot after the meeting, and that was very valuable," Ray said. "The next day, I called a couple of them on the phone, and we will continue our dialogue until we reach an agreement or we reach an impasse."
Meanwhile, there are many other ideas for the land. At last week's meeting, most of the speakers talked about making the Webster Farm a historic destination. Some talked about making it into a Sturbridge Village-like attraction -others envisioned a museum.
The farm was once owned by Daniel Webster, a 19th century statesman who served as a senator and secretary of state. In 1871, an orphanage was built on the land for children whose parents had died in the Civil War.
Most everyone seemed to like the idea of burnishing the image of both Daniel Webster and the city of Franklin.
Rosemary Mellon, a Franklin resident, touted the Sturbridge Village idea at last week's meeting.
"(Ray) came in with a business proposal. . . . I'm just John Q. Public, and this is my idea," she said, adding that she thinks the ideas are compatible. "I think you can mix both."
Just getting the buildings up to code will be costly. A preservation architect at last week's meeting estimated that it would cost $7 million to get all of the buildings in full working order.
And neither Cabot nor Leigh Webb, president of the Franklin Historical Society, has heard about any movements to put money or structure behind the idea of showcasing the farm's history.
Dan Fife, the neighboring farmer who has signed a purchase and sales agreement with TPL for the land, says that walking around the property he sometimes finds marbles. On the barn walls, there's what he calls "hieroglyphics"-along the lines of "Frankie Loves Susie"- left over from the farm's century of use as an orphanage.
He says he'd like to see the buildings become some sort of facility to help disadvantaged teenagers of today. At the same time, he thinks housing for the elderly would be the most viable use financially, and he likes the idea of turning the buildings into a school of rare trades.
"But as I said, the project is out of my hands in that a lot of people have a lot of other ideas and ambition and money," he said.
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