Recovery Connection Centers of America seems like a company that means business. And they mean to do it in downtown New Bedford. Among a lot of other places.
RCCA’s impressive website list for their New England medical offices includes locations from Boston to Providence to Dartmouth and Plymouth. It has a major business writing prescriptions for Suboxone, an opioid that helps addicts resist withdrawal symptoms.
You will find RCCA all over — from the strip malls on nearby Faunce Corner Road in the heart of the South Coast’s biggest shopping district to Providence’s Wickenden Street on a busy urban thoroughfare.
It is New Bedford’s fear of what might happen in an urban setting that seems to be spurring local resistance to RCCA’s plans for a Suboxone-care office on Union Street. Visions of the notorious “Mass and Cass” open-air drug dealing district in Boston might be on people’s minds.
On one side are merchants and those who worry about a city center that in recent years has finally seemed on the cusp of revitalization after a half century of decline. On the other side is RCCA, a rapidly growing medication-assisted treatment outfit, which on one website includes 15 current locations in eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and another four “Locations Coming Soon.” Among those new locations are New Bedford, along with Lynn, Roxbury and Manchester, Conn., a blue-collar town outside of Hartford.
With the COVID pandemic pushing opioid addiction into overdrive, something called MAT or “medication-assisted treatment” is currently a lucrative business opportunity. Actually, it has been a gainful business bet ever since America’s opioid-epidemic, fueled by rapaciously predatory pharmaceutical companies, launched Oxycodone on the country a generation ago.
It’s not that MAT isn’t needed. It clearly is, including in downtown New Bedford, where the homeless, and more to the point, addicted population, has resisted every effort by the city to encourage it out of the commercial district and over to Sister Rose Shelter in the South End, or out to the no-less-than-seven addiction treatment centers located in outlying neighborhoods around the community.
But in New Bedford, RCCA, with more than a little irony, wants to set up shop on upper Union right next to Fall River Pawn Brokers, in the spot where the downtown law firm Dusseault & Gomes formerly operated. At that spot it would also be one city block from the now under-construction park to be dedicated to Frederick Douglass, America’s great 19th century abolitionist leader. The park is ostensibly the latest significant tourist spot to launch in the city, and located at the heart of New Bedford’s abolitionist neighborhood.
RCCA’s hired gun, a lawyer named Benjamin Fierro, came before the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals last week and basically threatened that if New Bedford did not allow his client to open its medical office to dispense Suboxone prescriptions, it will sue. The company, he contended, has the law on its side due to past case law based on the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibiting zoning boards from declining permits based on concerns about people with addictions.
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Fierro was non-confrontational enough to hide his most pointed salvos during the public hearing at the downtown library. Rather, he let them go in a “Memorandum of Law” that he had previously sent to board chair Laura Parrish. In that missive he wrote, in bold letters, “Persons recovering from or receiving treatment for addiction to alcohol or drugs are disabled persons for the purpose of the (Americans with Disabilities) Act.”
The poor five-member Zoning Board of Appeals looked like a drowning man at sea in the face of Fierro’s cool warning. “As a matter of law, we actually don’t have to be here,” he even said at one point, almost appearing to taunt them.
When Fierro told the board that they could not treat a medical office administering care to addicts any differently than a dermatologist’s or other doctor’s office, member Stephen Brown lost it. He scolded the Boston-based lawyer for trying to frame the issue as local resistance to treating drug dependency and spoke of his own work as a local public defense lawyer working with addicts and the trauma that substance abuse has long meted out in the city. “There’s not a single person in this room, or in the city of New Bedford, whose life hasn’t been intimately touched by the opioid epidemic,” he said.
Brown argued that the board was simply struggling with whether RCCA’s application for a special permit under the city’s zoning law is legally allowed.
And indeed, board chair Laura Parrish and other members sought to emphasize real parking and traffic issues on Union Street connected to a business for which clients might be frequently dropped off on the congested downtown thoroughfare.
That seems a fair enough reason for denial, but despite Brown’s protestations, and the legitimate parking and traffic problems, there was something else going on at this hearing. There was in the room a visceral and deep-seated reaction to the circumstances of a substance-abuse business administering to those in the throes of drug addiction in this particular neighborhood. The overwhelming view was that this use would be a nail in the coffin of a downtown that is just finally emerging from long depressed circumstances. And that feeling went beyond the room. Both the City Council and Mayor Jon Mitchell have publicly spoken in unison against the proposal.
It was not that people don’t sympathize with the problem of addiction.
Several of a half-dozen or so downtown merchants spoke movingly of their own first-hand experiences with loved ones and friends struggling with it. One of them was Brandon Roderick, the owner of The Baker, a phenomenally successful French-style bakery a block-and-a-half from the proposed medical office.
“I appreciate what your business does as my mom lost her battle with opioid addiction in 2000,” he said. “So I can remember going to methadone clinics with her — which I know yours is not — as a child to get her methadone.”
Roderick recounted what he has long told city officials about parking challenges in the downtown, and said he does not even think the spot is right for the Suboxone office itself.
Roderick was not alone.
“Location is everything when you own a business, and I don’t believe that this is the proper location for a facility like this,” said Jennifer Cardoza, the owner of the nearby Pour Farm Tavern on Purchase Street.
Cardoza’s pub/restaurant abuts Wings Court, a landscaped urban courtyard in the downtown where many folks in the grip of substance abuse sometimes hang out.
Others saw the presence of Suboxone-oriented business slightly differently, but their lived experience with addicts and street dealing remained a theme.
Board member Celeste Paleologos agreed that people in the downtown who are already struggling with substance abuse might be attracted to the medical office because Suboxone is often bought and sold on the street for those struggling to withdraw.
Board chair Parrish and Paleologos, however, seemed to try to put the city on the more solid-seeming legal ground of denying the permit due to parking, safety and traffic congestion concerns, as did police chief Paul Oliveira.
“I personally wouldn’t mind if I were touring the city of New Bedford and I drove in and I saw Recovery Services of America on Union Street, if they had parking,” Paleologos said.
Some 99% of the people she works with are on Suboxone or methadone, she explained, so she is familiar with the population. “Some place along the bus route, there has to be a building with parking that can accommodate recovery services,” she said. Indeed, in commercial neighborhoods just north and south of the downtown there are storefronts with nearby lots and somewhat less parking pressure.
Paleologos seemed to be speaking for many.
It’s a delicate needle the city is trying to thread here. And it is up against an organization that appears to have the wherewithal and inclination to fight it in court.
Even though the zoning board eventually voted 5-0 to deny the permit, New Bedford may be in for a long battle with Recovery Connection Centers of America.
Email Jack Spillane at email@example.com.