Calling it a great day for Greenwich, a great day for Connecticut and, especially, a great day for seniors, Gov. Dannell Malloy helped break ground last Thursday on The Nathaniel Witherell’s Project Renew.
The long-awaited project, which has been in the planning stages for 10 years, now has formally begun after a special ceremony attended by prominent officials, Witherell leadership and several of the facility’s residents and staff members. Ceremonial shovels broke the ground and now the real work has begun of modernizing the historic building, designed to make it more attractive to both short- and long-term care residents. Estimates are that Project Renew, which will phase out outmoded, unpopular group rooms and replace them with more private rooms and an expanded rehabilitation center, will be completed in fall 2014.
The project faced many challenges along the way, including many questions about funding. Project Renew is being funded through municipal and private money as well as an increase in the state’s reimbursement for Medicaid payments. That required a Certificate of Need (CON) from the state, and while it was granted by former Gov. M. Jodi Rell, she later withdrew it, citing financial concerns. Mr. Malloy then restored it as one of his first acts in office in 2011.
Before the ceremony even began, Mr. Malloy made a point of visiting with Mary Klein, a resident of Witherell who was a close friend of his late mother. He said because of Ms. Klein and all the others being served by The Witherell he was proud to put his support behind it.
“My parents believed greatly in the need to give back to community and participate in community,” Mr. Malloy said. “I was probably one of the few kids who as an 11-, 12- and 13-year old, my mother would drive me to a nursing home and tell me to get out of the car and go visit people and volunteer. I have a special appreciation for the hard work and the good work that goes on at facilities like this. I also have a great appreciation for the gratitude we need to express to those who built our country and built our communities, including Greenwich, into the great places they are today. We need to take care of our fellow citizens, and the best way to do that is with the best equipment, the best care and the best professional health they can receive. I know this facility has done that routinely year after year after year.”
Mr. Malloy added that “facilities, like people, get old and need some help and care.” He said the undertaking to bring the project to fruition was “a testament to the goodness of Greenwich and the hard-working people who care deeply about their obligations.”
The ceremony was attended by many town residents, including key members of the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) and the Representative Town Meeting. Chris Thurlow, head of the Friends of The Nathaniel Witherell, was also there, as was Joseph Kaliko, who is credited with helping convince Mr. Malloy to grant the CON to allow the project to go forward. Former First Selectman James Lash, who not only pushed for the project during his time in office from 2003 to 2007 but then spoke out strongly in favor of it last year when the BET was considering how to fund Project Renew, also was on hand.
David Ormsby, chairman of The Witherell’s board of directors, said there were many people to thank for their work in the project’s 10-year odyssey, including Mr. Malloy for his “political courage” in granting the CON and “keeping the faith with a generation of seniors for whom home is no longer an option.” Mr. Ormsby credited Witherell resident Ken Henderson for remarking that for years Witherell had enjoyed a “five-star service in a two-star facility.” Mr. Henderson was one of the many residents who came outside to see the groundbreaking.
First Selectman Peter Tesei, who once came as a youth with his parents to visit his grandmother and other friends and family in The Nathaniel Witherell, said this was a “momentous occasion for our town.” He praised Mr. Ormsby for his commitment to seeing the project through. Mr. Tesei also praised Mr. Malloy for his leadership and said it was because he had given the final go-ahead that they were able to break ground.
“If there’s any institution that epitomizes the heart of our town it’s The Witherell,” Mr. Tesei said. “It is no accident that in all of the comments we’ve heard about this project that it’s the one thing that brings people together united. It provides essential care to those who are most vulnerable and does it in the best fashion possible. We are so proud of the staff here and we want to commend you for your service to our most important folks in our community, our seniors.”
In addition to Mr. Tesei, Selectmen David Theis and Drew Marzullo attended, as did state Sen. L. Scott Frantz (R-36th District) and state Reps. Livvy Floren (R-149th District), Stephen Walko (R-150th District) and Fred Camillo (R-151st District) as well as former state Reps. Lile Gibbons and Claudia “Dolly” Powers. U.S. Rep. Jim Himes (D-4th District), a Cos Cob resident, also appeared to help break ground and thanked everyone who invested the time and hard work into seeing the renovation through all the obstacles it faced.
“I think I can remember 10-plus years ago when this project was first conceived of, and a lot of people have done a tremendous amount of work,” Mr. Himes said. “What’s really remarkable about it is that in a time of challenging politics, to say the least, the town of Greenwich’s Republicans and Democrats worked with the board and the BET and a variety of different first selectmen and came together in civil and constructive fashion to really preserve something we all know to be one of the crown jewels of the town of Greenwich.”
Mr. Ormsby thanked all of them, calling them “great friends and advocates” and saying they were “steadfast in their support of eldercare in this town.” He said many of them came from different political parties but “we learned long ago that dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, strokes, and other cardiac events do not come on political terms. They are a product of the aging process, not the political process, and we’re fortunate to have in Greenwich a leadership team that understands this.”
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a Greenwich resident, was unable to attend the ceremony because of an overseas trip with some Senate colleagues but did send a letter of congratulations. Allen Brown, executive director of The Nathaniel Witherell, read the letter, in which Mr. Blumenthal said it was time to “celebrate the successful and fruitful commitment of Greenwich to Nathaniel Witherell, including the critical investment made by the community in the comfort, health and happiness of our senior citizens.”
Mr. Blumenthal added that the “Nathaniel Witherell has been a profoundly significant and unparalleled source of both short-term and long-term care and a model for Connecticut.”
Mr. Brown thanked all those with prominent names at the ceremony but also reminded people there “about 600 other VIPs,” counting all the residents, volunteers and staff members at The Witherell. Hundreds of them were able to come outside for the groundbreaking and earned a big round of applause from everyone in attendance.
“There’s a huge number of people who have a stake in this claim, and we’re happy to have so many of them out here with us,” Mr. Brown said.
Mr. Ormsby added that he had to thank his fellow members of the board of directors who “could not have believed what they signed up for” when they volunteered, but “the real thanks” belonged to the staff nurses, nurse’s aides, housekeepers, laundry workers, and kitchen and food service employees.