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Recovery Center hopes to stay on city campus

Sylvia Barela, CEO of the Santa Fe Recovery Center, would like to keep a 90-day residential program for the center's clients on the Midtown Campus owned by city government. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Sylvia Barela, CEO of the Santa Fe Recovery Center, would like to keep a 90-day residential program for the center’s clients on the Midtown Campus owned by city government. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

The Santa Fe Recovery Center works to help people struggling with alcohol or drug addiction get a new lease on life. But now it has its own lease to worry about.

The Recovery Center has been leasing apartments at the former campus of the Santa Fe University of Art and Design – what’s now being called the Midtown Campus – since last year to house clients enrolled in its extended residential program for recovering addicts.

While it expects to renew the lease for another six months, starting when the current lease expires July 15, its future is in doubt after that.

“We would most likely have to shut down the extended residential program, unless we could find another space,” Sylvia Barela, director of the Recovery Center, said when asked what would happen if their lease were terminated. “The continual care that we provide with this program makes all our others more effective. It’s a key component.”

Barela said the accommodations at the campus are just what their program needs and the Recovery Center would like to stay there as long as the city will have them.

“We’d like to remain in that space as long as we can, but the city has been up front that they don’t know what may happen there in the future and can’t commit,” she said.

City-owned campus

The city bought 91 acres that includes the 64-acre campus in 2009 after the College of Santa Fe shut down. In order to purchase the property, the city borrowed $29.6 million from the New Mexico Finance Authority and was paying about $2.2 million a year to pay off the loan. The lease with the Santa Fe University of Art and Design helped cover that annual debt service payment for several years, but when the university shuttered a year ago, the city lost a key source of income.

The city refinanced that loan earlier this year, reducing the annual payment to about $1.7 million per year, and has been seeking other sources of income while it goes through the process of figuring out what it can do with the property. It launched its Midtown Campus Project, which involved soliciting public input and inviting conceptual designs, as a means of helping determine the best use of the property. Many people and city leaders have said they would like to see another institution of higher learning at the campus, utilizing the property for apartments or beefing up facilities for the film industry around the campus’ existing Garson Studios.

There wasn’t a huge outcry for a drug recovery facility.

“There definitely is a lot of stigma or belief that there will be problems that will occur or people think there will be people there using drugs,” Barela said. “But we run such a structured program (that) there was probably more drug use on campus before, because we regulate and monitor it very closely.”

Barela said that 35 to 40 clients are participating in the 90-day extended residential program at the campus right now. About half of the center’s clients suffer from a dependency on alcohol and half struggle with opioid addiction.

All of the clients currently residing at the Midtown Campus are graduates of the 30-day short-term residential program and occupy 24 two-bedroom apartments that were previously used for student housing. The Recovery Center also leases a portion of King Hall, formerly a dormitory, located across the road. Altogether, the center pays the city $19,330 per month in rent.

Barela said the Recovery Center staffs the facility with two medical technicians and a variety of counselors. Clients are not permitted to leave the campus for the first two weeks they are there. When they are allowed to leave, they must first check out with a staff member and are then subject to taking a Breathalyzer-type test upon their return. Clients also undergo drug testing on a regular basis, and if they are found to have fallen off the wagon, they are subject to removal, Barela said.

“We went through a lot with the city to ensure this was going to be safe,” she said.

Barela said clients enter the center’s recovery program in a variety of ways – either through self-referral, or referrals through family or friends, a treatment provider, a drug court or DWI program.

The Recovery Center needs the extra space, even after its facility on Lucia Lane on the city’s south side was remodeled and expanded last year.

During that time, the Recovery Center used St. Michael’s Hall on the Midtown Campus for about 5½ months, which coincided with SFUAD’s final semester. About a month later, it signed an 11-month lease for the facilities it currently use on campus.

The center runs its administrative offices and outpatient services, which include one-on-one and group counseling sessions, on Jaguar Drive not far from the facility on Lucia Lane.

The center has had difficulty finding a location to expand its operations. It was first eyeing a former church on Rodeo Road, but that idea fell through because an initial loan on that property required that it be sold to another church.

The center later proposed moving into a former urgent care building in the Valdes Business Park near the Santa Fe Police Department. But the business park association wouldn’t allow it, citing covenants that prohibit residential use.

The matter went to court, but a district court judge determined the law was on the side of the business park. After that, the center decided to expand its campus on Lucia Lane to include apartments, which are currently used for its program specifically for recovering women who have children. The third phase of the expansion will include 20 two-bedroom apartments, but that won’t be done for three to five years.

Other campus tenants

The Recovery Center isn’t the only entity leasing space on the Midtown Campus.

Kevin Kellogg, the city’s asset development manager, noted that Garson Studios also leases space, as does the Center for Contemporary Arts, which operates The Screen movie theater. George R.R. Martin’s Stagecoach Foundation operates a prop house at the site, he said. The Santa Fe Art Institute has long held a presence on the property and since SFUAD moved out, the city has established a police and fire emergency operations center there.

Kellogg said the Recovery Center has been a good tenant in the 16 months it has occupied space on campus.

“They are one of the most professional organizations that I’ve worked with,” he said.

While the city considers the Recovery Center’s presence on campus to be temporary, Mayor Alan Webber said the city fully supports the work they do.

“We all know opioid and alcohol addiction is a problem not just locally but nationally and it’s on the rise. It will take a unified effort from governments and nonprofits to get a strategy that will work,” he said.

Webber said the city is working in partnership with Santa Fe County, which last month unveiled its Behavioral Health Strategic Plan. The plan includes a behavioral health crisis triage center to open on Galisteo next year and a dedicated recovery center.

Currently, the city and county governments contribute grant funding to the Recovery Center, which together accounts for about 10% of its total budget, according to Barela.

“The only way to tackle this community problem that touches so many lives is through a community-wide approach that will bring services to people in a coordinated way,” Webber said. “One of the things we have to do is re-frame the perception from people with addictions being criminals to people who need help. We need to shift the approach from treating addiction as a crime to treating it as a disease.”

The mayor said rather than treat symptoms, cities and counties need to dig deeper and address the root causes that lead to addiction.

After taking office last year, the mayor formed the Municipal Drug Strategy Task Force, which was tasked with coming up with ways the city can work to address the problem of addiction.

The task force formed four subcommittees to brainstorm ideas and came up with a long list that will eventually be condensed to a set of recommendations.

Barela chaired the treatment subcommittee, which listed as one of its possible recommendations the use of the Midtown Campus as a possible site for a permanent recovery facility.

“Recommend that the city consider behavioral health treatment and housing service on the campus or a portion of the campus,” a draft list of recommendations said. “Utilize the apartment buildings permanently for low-income housing and/or recovery housing.”

The city will offer the Recovery Center a six-month lease that will keep it on campus until the end of the year. It then goes month to month and the city has the option of terminating the lease if something comes up that would require the Recovery Center to move.

If it comes to that, Barela said, the extended residential program would be in jeopardy. To keep it going, the Recovery Center would have to scramble for a new site, perhaps a motel, out of which to run the program for the next few years, at least until the third phase of the Lucia Lane facility is complete.

But she’d love to keep the program where it is today.

“The apartments are the right size, the right price; it’s the right location,” she said. “We’ll just have to take it a month at a time and see what develops.”

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