Nonprofit eyes Schenectady for halfway house

A nonprofit organization that wants to open a halfway house for discharged federal prisoners at 908

A nonprofit organization that wants to open a halfway house for discharged federal prisoners at 908 State St. will discuss the project tonight in a community meeting.

The meeting starts at 6 p.m. at State Street Presbyterian Church.

Several community groups and residents said they would attend in opposition to the proposed facility.

Firetree, of Williamsport, Pa., is proposing to open its fourth “community re-entry center” in the country in the former Mohawk Office Products building. It would operate the facility under contract with the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which has yet to sign off on the agreement.

Firetree provides training and educational services to help former prisoners find jobs and return to society, said company president Allen Ertel.

“We help them get jobs, and that helps them have a very good chance of being good citizens. All of our clients are employed before they are released,” he said.

The organization has a five-year lease-purchase agreement on the State Street property and plans to invest at least $750,000 into it. It may invest more should it decide to demolish two other buildings on the property, Ertel said.

The halfway house would initially contain 16 beds for men and two beds for women, increasing to 32 beds for men and four beds for women. Ertel said the State Street facility would not accept people who committed violent crimes or predatory sex crimes.

“We get a lot of white-collar criminals and a lot of people with drug or alcohol problems. They are caught with the drugs they were using,” he said.

People would live at the house between six months and a year. They would be natives of Albany, Schenectady and Rensselaer counties who completed their prison terms and would be relocating to the area.

Firetree first tried to establish the halfway house in Rotterdam and Colonie, but both towns denied the organization’s applications for zoning amendments. Ertel said the State Street facility does not require a zoning change and can therefore open without the city’s permission.

Mayor Brian U. Stratton said the city cannot prevent Firetree from opening.

“I told them they will not get my immediate support for this. It will be a problematic issue for the Hamilton Hill and Vale neighborhoods. I have issues about whether it is a good fit for the neighborhoods,” Stratton said.

He added that Firetree needs to explain its project to the community, where it is facing resistance.

“They need to go before the public. Sunshine is the best thing for this and to let all of that come out,” he said.

Marion Porterfield, site coordinator for Schenectady Weed & Seed, said her organization and several others, including Better Neighborhoods Inc. and Schenectady Inner City Ministries, are against the Firetree project.

“We want to see economic development in the community. We are saturated in terms of residential facilities located within our small community,” she said.

An organization called the Hamilton Hill and Vale Community Planning Group, consisting of the previously mentioned groups, had set its own sights on the former Mohawk Office Products building. It wanted to establish a lunch facility, farmers market and eventually a community supermarket at the site to help bring fresh produce and healthier food to the community.

“We have been looking at economic development in the community and targeted that building as a site for this market project,” Porterfield said.

Ertel said Firetree brings both economic development and community services to the community. Its proposal calls for creating 40 jobs and rehabilitating a vacant building. He also said that the proposed facility would add stability to the community.

Ertel sought to dispel fears that the former prisoners would be a threat.

“People who come into our community want to be good. They are under our control, are supervised by us and they face the threat that if they screw up at all they will go back to prison,” Ertel said.

He said the halfway house would not have bars on the windows and doors. But, he added, the residents “are not allowed to go out without our knowledge and without supervision, and no weapons are allowed of any kind. These people are waiting to get back into society and they do not want to get into trouble.”

Categories: Schenectady County

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