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New Home in Bayside Revives Community Counseling Center 

Appearing in Mainebiz, April 19, 2011 

 Three years ago Portland's largest mental health agency was on the verge of financial collapse, strained by the economic crash and shrinking funding sources. Today, however, after forming a strategic and timely alliance with like-minded agencies, Community Counseling Center is not just surviving, but expanding.

On April 22, Community Counseling will leave its cramped quarters on Forest Avenue for a renovated industrial building in the Bayside neighborhood, a once blighted area that has seen an increase in new commercial development in recent years. The agency will be equidistant from Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, two anchors in the neighborhood's ongoing revitalization.

Community Counseling's new location at 165 Lancaster St., in a former bread factory, has been refurbished for approximately $2.5 million, according to Erin Smith, Community Counseling's spokeswoman. The landlord, Tom Toye of Bayside II LLC, is financing the bulk of the project, while Community Counseling is providing the rest, $578,000. The agency has signed a 10-year lease.

The 33,000-square-foot space --10,000 square feet larger than CCC's current office -- will enable the agency to increase its staff by 10%, adding about 10 new positions, and provide services to 25% more clients in the next two years, Smith says.

"And this is at a time when a lot of agencies like ours are closing and decreasing services," she says.

Community Counseling serves more than 10,000 individuals and families a year with counseling, case management and other wellness services. Approximately 85% of its clients are moderate- to low-income, according to Interim President and CEO Mary Jane Krebs. Its $6.8 million budget comes from program fees and contracted services, as well as state and federal funding, other fundraising efforts and a yearly grant from the United Way of Greater Portland. The agency employs clinicians, social workers, case managers and a few administrators.

The excitement that Community Counseling's employees feel at leaving their "depressing, dark and dingy" old building for a new space is not just about being able to stretch their legs, Smith says. The new move also symbolizes just how much, and how quickly, the agency turned itself around.

In 2008, Community Counseling's $3.6 million endowment dropped by a third when the market declined, according to Smith. Meanwhile, the agency was eating into the remainder of the endowment to collateralize its investments against its operational line of credit. "We weren't able to meet our operating cash needs and were ever increasingly getting into debt over time," Smith writes in an email.

Simultaneously, Community Counseling was seeing its funding sources dry up: Its primary MaineCare reimbursement rate slipped 34% between 2002 and 2009, and the organization's state funding shrank from $1.2 million in 2002 to $411,000 in 2008.

"In addition to those things, our expenses continued to rise and we made cuts year after year," Smith explains. "We had closed our Bangor, Augusta, Westbrook and Baxter Boulevard locations, and had laid off 20-30 people (primarily administrative staff) over the course of two years in order to respond to rate cuts. We kept consolidating and reducing our expenses, but at some point it got to be too much."

In 2009, Smith says Community Counseling had just four to six months before it had to close.

Then it was offered a lifeline. A year prior, in 2008, MaineHealth and Spring Harbor Hospital had formed the Maine Mental Health Partners as a subsidiary of MaineHealth, a nonprofit consortium of health care organizations that includes Maine Medical Center in Portland. In July, 2009, Community Counseling joined MMHP with a plea that this partnership was its last hope, according to Krebs.

Today the network also includes Spring Harbor Hospital and Spring Harbor Community Services in Westbrook, Counseling Services Inc. in Saco, Mid-Coast Mental Health Center in Rockland and Integrated Behavioral Healthcare Inc. in Scarborough.

Becoming part of the network allows Community Counseling to share its back-office operations with its partners, consolidating human resources, IT, communications and financial services, according to Krebs. In its first year with MMHP, the agency saved more than $500,000.

"We're always looking at ways of taking out duplication, improving service, improving quality and reducing cost," Krebs says.

The network also provides financial support. Spring Harbor Hospital gave Community Counseling a $428,000 loan for its new building, and MaineHealth is guaranteeing its lease, Krebs says. Community Counseling raised an additional $110,000 and is hoping to raise another $40,000 this year, Smith says, to pay for new computers, staff training and artwork.

Community Counseling's move to Lancaster Street required not just financial stability, but also a certain amount of faith. When the agency's directors got their first look at 165 Lancaster St., they were rather underwhelmed. The building is a long, low utilitarian structure designed for the mass production of baked goods. After Cushman's Bakery closed in 1960s, the building was converted into offices.

"The building that they would relocate to, 165 Lancaster Street, was tired and in need of significant interior and exterior rehab," brokers Greg Boulos and Justin Lamontagne write in a realtor's case study. "It was in such tough shape that, upon arrival for the first property tour, the group representing CCC asked Boulos to drive on. They said it wasn't worth touring."

But with the help of architects including Scott Teas of TFH Architects, who drafted renderings to show the building's possibilities, Community Counseling's leaders eventually changed their opinion, according to Boulos and Lamontagne.

Landry/French Construction of Scarborough gutted the interior and built it anew. MorrisSwitzer, an architecture firm with a Portland office, designed the interior, and Portland's TFH Architects designed the exterior.

Kevin French, co-owner of Landry/French, says he had to level the long concrete hallways, which had been sloped to accommodate rolling bread bins. The huge, meandering interior has been partitioned into many small offices and painted with a colorful palette of plum, turquoise, moss green and peach. Landry/French added five new skylights.

"Patients come in to a beautifully renovated space that's bright and positive," Smith says. "It makes them feel like they're being taken care of."

 by Rebecca Goldfine, Reporter








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