Home Stretch for Healthy Waltham

By Chris Wangler
June 5, 2023
 

Is Healthy Waltham’s long search for a home coming to an end?

After being recognized by a local chamber of commerce, executive director Myriam Michel said an announcement is coming soon.

The city is busy renovating a former dog pound for the acclaimed food pantry, but will Healthy Waltham opt instead to lease a different location? 

Emerging Business Leader of Color

In late May, Michel was named an Emerging Business Leader of Color by the Charles River Regional Chamber of Commerce, which represents a number of nearby communities, and Get Konnected!, an inclusive business networking organization.

The Healthy Waltham executive director is among twenty leaders under 40 making a positive contribution to the economic and social fabric of Greater Boston’s Western Suburbs.

Michel, who is also a successful event planner, said she was honored by the recognition, explaining it would “increase awareness of the work of our organization and the community needs it seeks to address.”

The Waltham native is keenly aware of the need for food assistance programs as local residents grapple with high inflation and housing costs.

During COVID, Healthy Waltham provided groceries to as many as 1,000 families at outdoor pantry events, serving the working poor, low-income seniors and immigrants.

Michel said the need persists today, even as the Boston Food Bank has scaled back its assistance commitment.

Search for a Home

Healthy Waltham enjoys strong community support and funding, but it has struggled to find a permanent home in Waltham.

 

After moving during COVID from St. Mary’s to Government Center, it currently runs outdoor pantries from the city’s former Fitch School parking lot on the South Side.

 

The Ward 8 city councilor who represents the area, Cathyann Harris, said a supportive council order would allow Healthy Waltham to continue to use the former school until a forever home is found.

But the crumbling Fitch, which is not zoned for pantry use and features a gym lacking climate controls, cannot serve as a permanent location. 

So what would? Healthy Waltham has looked at quite a few spaces, both public and private, such as 33 Rumford Avenue.

Back in February, Michel said Waltham landlords were not always enthusiastic about large numbers of people showing up for grocery distribution and other unique requirements of the non-profit.

 

Mayor Jeannette McCarthy, who volunteered at pantries during COVID and has arranged for other city services, had a possible solution: a former dog pound owned by the city at 92 Felton Street.

92 Felton Marketplace

The city’s purchasing department, working with the mayor, put the first floor of the building and most of the parking lot up for bid earlier this year.

 

92 Felton Street dates to circa 1900 and has sat vacant for years. 

 

These images show what the place looked like when it was used briefly as a homeless warming shelter back in 2016.

 

Fast forward to 2023. While still a little rough around the edges, the property had potential, even if it was only the first floor. 

The zoning would work, and the space offered a central location, 2,800 SF of interior space at low rent ($5/SF), a large parking lot, a loading bay, a disabled entrance, two bathrooms and office space.

 

Most importantly, the building’s front room, described as “the main market room” in bid documents, could eventually provide a “marketplace model” for grocery distribution.

 

Arlington EATS, described by Michel as Healthy Waltham’s guiding “North Star,” uses a similar model. In Waltham, the marketplace model would allow guests to book timed appointments instead of lining up for mass outdoor pantries every other week.

“We want to be able to provide services with dignity and respect and avoid or eliminate long waiting lines,” she said.

 

In early April, Healthy Waltham was the only entity to apply to lease 92 Felton, but there was one big caveat: it’s not finished.

“Proceeding Toward Occupancy”

In recent months, city workers have extensively renovated the building, but there’s still more work to be done.

 

New electrical and specially designed windows have already been installed, but the parking lot remains unpaved and there is work on a concrete floor that must be completed inside, along with other improvements.

The city council is expected to approve more than $115,000 in funding requested by the mayor. All told, she said more than $500,000 has been earmarked to renovate and improve the building.

 

“The repairs are proceeding along, and when they’re done, I’ll send the lease to the council,” said mayor McCarthy. Neither she nor Myriam Michel can comment on bid process specifics, as it is ongoing.

 

The continuing renovations do not have a timeline, but are not expected to finish before the close of the legislative session at the end of June.

Can Healthy Waltham wait? 

“We are looking at other alternatives that make the best sense for the organization short term and long term,” Michel said last week.

 

She added that an announcement about a new home is coming in the next few weeks.

If Healthy Waltham ultimately doesn’t lease 92 Felton Street, the city could make the property available to another prospective tenant in the future.

“We are proceeding toward occupancy,” said mayor Jeannette McCarthy.

File photos