Making Homes and Careers Available to Working Poor

Mill at Middletown promises to revitalize downtown and people's lives
By Yvonne Marcotte
Yvonne Marcotte
Yvonne Marcotte
November 11, 2015 Updated: November 11, 2015

MIDDLETOWN—When the Mill at Middletown opens in late spring 2016, the city will have another option for in-demand affordable housing and a program aimed at helping people move off of public assistance and into the work force.

The old hat and silk manufacturing facility at the corner of Mill and Harding streets has stood empty for the last 30 years. The Mill at Middletown project will adapt this historic structure into 42 residential apartments, a 1,700 square-foot community room, and the Fresh Start Café.

Training Café

The first floor café is the star of the housing complex. People who work downtown will appreciate the healthy breakfast and lunch selections priced under $10, but the café has another job—training people to manage retail food outlets.

Promotional material by the non-profit Regional Economic Community Action Program (RECAP) describes the eatery as part of the organization’s welfare-to-work initiative: “a job readiness program designed to help individuals who require public assistance to meet their needs and become self-reliant by giving them the technical and soft (life) skills needed in today’s job market.”

Not only does the trainee learn specific food preparation skills, they are trained in life skills.

Project manager Penny Thelman said the eatery will have three full-time workers, two managers, and two trainers. Fresh Start has two other locations. At the Cornell Extension location on Community Campus, Fresh Start primarily does catering, prepares meals for the homeless shelter nearby, and offers take-out for the general public.

The Newburgh location trains people presently on welfare in working in a restaurant. Different stations show the trainee how to prepare a food. For example, the salad station shows them how to prepare salads. Not only does the trainee learn specific food preparation skills, they are trained in life skills—”show up for work, anger management, how to work together, customer service,” says the RECAP brochure.

When they pass the training requirements a person can apply for restaurant work or, if selected, will be able to come to the Fresh Start at The Mill for training on the business side.

“We’re calling this our finishing school,” Thelman said. “We want to gear people up for how to manage, how to do the ordering, how to do the menu selection, and training in some of the business areas—A to Z—so they can literally go out and run a café for somebody or even their own some day.”

Thelman said the new café will be smaller than the other two Fresh Start facilities to fit into the restored building and to encourage take-out. The adjacent courtyard will have seating for eating outside.

Financial Backing

Thelman says funding came from the state, county, city, nonprofit, and financial institutions.

Non-profit lender Leviticus 25:23 Alternative Fund, Inc. jumpstarted the project with $775,000 in predevelopment financing. The project will cost about $14.7 million when complete.

The wait list for prospective renters is long.

Thelman works for RECAP, whose mission is to “mobilize and coordinate public and private resources to address the needs of low income people.” The project’s fact sheet says it “epitomizes everything that RECAP stands for and attempts to achieve in the communities it serves.”

She said RECAP’s participation got the project up and running after three tries. Financing comes with a series of tax credits for investors who will own the complex until they get all the tax credits due. After that a subsidiary of RECAP will own the deed. This ends in about 15 years, after which RECAP will refinance the only outstanding loan, $600,000 from Orange County.

Mill Street Partners LLC is developing the project. A principal in the company is also part of one of the leading architects of affordable housing in the state, Magnusson Architecture and Planning.

Homes for Working Families

Orange County’s medium income is around $83,000, earnings beyond most working families. To be eligible for an apartment at The Mill, a family of four can be eligible with a household income of $46,000 or less. Renters must be checked to retain eligibility status annually.

The wait list for prospective renters is long, and Thelman said, “We are swamped.”

The character and charm of the old hat and silk factory will be retained.

RECAP is obligated to keep the complex as affordable workforce housing for 50 years, Thelman said. An apartment will be set aside for a resident manager, eight units will be available for disabled residents, and 33 one-, two- and three-bedroom units will be rented to working families with a year’s lease.

Units will enjoy some nice amenities—central air, Energy Star appliances, discounted Internet, and residents will enjoy at least a 15 percent reduction in energy costs. Part of the roof will hold solar panels. No pets are allowed.

Historic Structure Revitalized

Mayor Joe DeStefano said the Mill at Middletown project   “is a fine example of re-adaptive use of industrial buildings in our city.”

 The character and charm of the old hat and silk factory will be retained. A landscaped courtyard will connect the original structure with new construction. The complex will have 81 parking spaces for residents.

Mary Paden is vice president of the Community Preservation Corporation, which is one of RECAP’s partners in the project. At its Hudson Valley office she said, “Restoring historic buildings like the Mill at Middletown is part of our larger effort to revitalize a downtown community that has seen housing and jobs evaporate.”

Information material calls the project a great success even before it’s completed, “an old, unused, vacant, and deteriorating building that would have had to be torn down is being turned into an amazing, redeveloped space that will be a major contribution to the revitalization of the neighborhood and surrounding community.”

 Thelman said it’s located in a great area with a supermarket and post office nearby. “It’s clean, affordable housing and you can come in to get great food.”

 RECAP recently celebrated 50 years of service to area residents. The nonprofit provides weatherization services, job training, senior housing, parole re-entry, and treatment for addiction.

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