Farren closure prompts community concerns; public hearing set for Wednesday

  • The Farren Care Center on Montague City Road in Turners Falls. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 9/10/2020 4:04:04 PM
Modified: 9/10/2020 4:03:52 PM

TURNERS FALLS — The Farren Care Center’s August announcement that it plans to close by the end of the year has left room for uncertainty regarding the future of the patients, the employees and, especially, the building.

On Wednesday night, the state Department of Public Health will accept public input regarding the closure plan, which will weigh into the department’s decision of whether to allow the closure. With statements expected from a representative of the Montague Selectboard and from an attorney who represents several Farren patients, the hearing is expected to bring attention to some of the potential problems the community faces.

The hearing is Sept. 16 at 6 p.m. via a phone conference. Access it by calling 888-309-5007 and entering the passcode 3307387.

The closure of the Farren on Montague City Road is part of a change of ownership of multiple health care facilities in Western Massachusetts, and a consolidation of the new owner’s resources. The end result, if the state approves the plan, is that the Farren merges into a similar facility in Holyoke called Mount Saint Vincent Care Center, and is taken over by a Connecticut company called iCare Health Network.

Like the Farren, Mount Saint Vincent also cares for people with long-term medical conditions and behavioral disorders.

The Farren is now owned by Trinity Health of New England. Since January, however, Trinity has contracted with iCare to manage the Farren, Trinity spokesperson Christine Looby said previously.

Mount Saint Vincent is managed by Trinity, but the property is owned by a group called Sisters of Providence. The ownership and management of Mount Saint Vincent will both go to iCare, pending approval of the state Department of Public Health.

The building in Turners Falls would close. Looby, previously explaining that decision, cited a shortage of qualified workers to staff both the Farren and Mount Saint Vincent, and the age and condition of the Turners Falls building, which would require significant investments if it were to continue as a health care facility — an issue that has worried town officials for years.

“The intention is to do the best to serve our residents in the best way possible,” Looby said when the decision was announced in August. “But a large infusion of cash to bring the building in Turners Falls back to modern standards just didn’t make sense.”

According to Looby, the Farren’s 105 current patients will all be offered space at Mount Saint Vincent, which is large enough to accommodate all of them.

However, there may be issues with the plan for the patients, said David Roulston, a Greenfield lawyer who has served as legal guardian for Farren patients for three decades.

With the pandemic, Roulston said, patients and their loved ones and guardians cannot visit other facilities to compare them to Mount Saint Vincent. If iCare wants to close the Farren, he said, it should at least wait until after the pandemic is resolved, especially since there is nothing immediately forcing the facility to close.

“I mean, the roof didn’t blow off the Farren or something like that. The Farren is perfectly adequate to continue for the foreseeable future,” Roulston said. “Why are we doing this right now?”

Gov. Charlie Baker likely has the power to stop the closure, at least until the pandemic resolves, Roulston said. He likened such a decision to Baker’s orders to close schools and courts amid the pandemic.

In the town’s perspective, the most immediate concern is the future of the building. The Selectboard and Town Administrator Steve Ellis have expressed fear that it could fall into disrepair and become increasingly unattractive to developers, as some other old industrial buildings in Montague have.

In fact, the declining condition of the Farren has been on the town’s radar for years. Ellis explained that the town and the Farren’s managers have long lobbied the state to lend financial support to upgrade the old building, via current state legislators Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, and Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland, and with former legislators Stan Rosenberg and Stephen Kulik.

“I can’t report that there was ever a productive response that we received from the state that suggested that they were willing to make that investment,” Ellis said.

If the Farren is allowed to close, Ellis said, it is important that a plan for a new use for the building come together quickly.

A feasibility study on options for redevelopment should be the responsibility of Trinity, the outgoing owner of the Farren, Ellis said. He said the company has indicated that it would be willing to at least help fund a study.

Revenue to the town will not be significantly affected by the closure, said Karen Tonelli, the director of the Montague Assessors’ Office. The Farren property is assessed at about $5 million, but it is tax-exempt and does not have an agreement with the town for payments in lieu of taxes, as tax-exempt entities sometimes do. She noted there could be an impact from the potential loss of the Farren’s 154 employees patronizing local businesses.

“Thankfully, it isn’t the removal of $5 million in our tax base,” she said.

Reach Max Marcus at mmarcus@recorder.com or 413-930-4231.

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