NORWALK, Conn. – The competition for space between two South Norwalk non-profits that climaxed in a recent literal power grab is mirrored in competing documents explaining the relationship between the two.
While Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON) founder Bobby Burgess asserted last week that the South Norwalk Community Center (SNCC) “was never intended to serve one ethnic group as has been reported,” a 1979 letter signed by Burgess says otherwise. (SNCC now goes by the acronym SoNoCC.)
The 1979 letter also says that if a building were to be built to house the two agencies, it would be owned by SNCC and house NEON and other agencies.
This has been a bone of contention.
On April 27, Burgess sent an email to everyone invited to an April 30 mayor’s office “peace conference.” The conference followed news reports of SoNoCC Deputy Director Pat Ferrandino breaking into space controlled by NEON to turn the power back on after it was shut off under orders from the Rev. Tommie Jackson, transitional NEON CEO.
Burgess sent a copy of the email to the press.
NancyOnNorwalk, which obtained a copy of the 1979 letter, sent that letter to Burgess and asked about the discrepancy. He has not replied.
NancyOnNorwalk decided to hold the story until SoNoCC and NEON met with the mayor and other local officials. Mayor Harry Rilling and Ferrandino have since declined to comment about the meeting.
Burgess said in his April 27 email he was clarifying statements about the operating agreement between the two entities from 1984 to 2003, during his tenure as NEON CEO. He said that he and the late Rev. Henry Yordon, then-NEON board chairman, shook hands with then-mayoral candidate Bill Collins to agree that:
• The Alexander property, a former car wash, would be deeded to NEON for the construction of a new NEON building, “which will include a multi-purpose Service Delivery Center for the under-served population in Norwalk and the adjacent towns served by NEON Inc.”
• Alexander would agree to convey his operating hard metal junk yard, behind the lot the proposed building would be on, to the city in an agreement that Burgess would work out with then-Norwalk Redevelopment Agency Director Rod Johnson.
• Burgess and his wife, Mary Ryan Burgess, then-chairman of SNCC’s Board of Directors, needed to demonstrate that they could raise $1 million to construct the building and buy equipment.
• Ryan Park would be relocated to the junk yard property. The park was then owned by the Second Taxing District. Burgess would work out the details.
This was all necessitated because the Catholic Diocese building, which was located where the police department parking lot is now, burned to the ground. SNCC had been operating out of the building.
Burgess said in his email that the diocese “provided the $90,000.00 from the sale of the land which they owned on S. Main Street to assist In NEON Inc. raising funds for the complex.”
SNCC would have use of the first floor, but NEON would find other social service agencies to rent space on the first floor, so SNCC could use the revenue to pay its share of the overhead costs. The two boards of directors would contribute four people each for a Building Operations Committee to mediate and resolve disputes, Burgess said.
“It was never necessary to activate this committee as disputes never arose and the two agency directors worked in harmony, which continued until my retirement,” Burgess wrote. “These were the guidelines approved by the NEON Inc. Board of Director and provided to Atty. Andrew Brucker to be filed with the City Of Norwalk. I was surprised when I learned that the papers filed with the city of Norwalk did not follow the NEON Inc. Board of Directors and my intent and stated that the NEON/SNCC (building) is owned by the City of Norwalk and that NEON Inc. and the SNCC were tenants- in- common. Obviously it was never intended that the SNCC become equal in ownership of the building when the amount of money put into the project by SNCC did not come anywhere near one half of the total costs.
“Clearly,” he continued, “based on these facts, the intent of the leaders of the NEON and SNCC Boards and the Executive Directors of the two agencies was that the building be operated by representatives of each prominent ethnic group, intended to serve everyone in need in a single location and governed by an integrated group of people. It was never intended that each agency serve one ethnic group as has been reported.
“This plan worked throughout my tenure at NEON, until I retired in 2003, and finally Joe Mann filled my position and Warren Peña emerged as Chairman of the SNCC Board.”
Burgess is contradicted by the earlier letter.
The June 26, 1979, letter from Burgess was written to Department of Human Resources Commissioner Ronald Manning to request funding for the hoped-for facility. The letter stated that SNCC’s was formed to serve the Hispanic community.
“The South Norwalk Community Center (SNCC) was first organized as St. Joseph’s Center, under the auspices of the Catholic Church, to provide multi-purpose services to the Hispanic community. It was located in an old community facility which had been purchased by the Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport and was located on South Main Street in South Norwalk, which is the area where 90% of the Hispanic residents live.”
The center incorporated and got funding from the Connecticut Department of Community Affairs, he said. It then began serving the entire community, and expanded its scope of services to include tenant agencies that coordinated with the “SNCC program” to alleviate social problems in disadvantaged families. The NEON/CETA Manpower Center was one of those tenant agencies.
The diocese offered to lease the (now police station) property to SNCC to build a facility there, but the city was not interested, he wrote. SNCC had received $300,000 in Community Development funds for the expected construction of a building, he wrote.
“The facility will be owned by the SNCC, because this will be a condition of the lease or land sale agreement with the Diocese of Bridgeport, but the facility will house NEON, Inc, the NEON/CETA Center and the other tenant agencies.”
Burgess did not reply to an April 27 email asking for an explanation, as previously stated.
“As you can see from the documents, (Burgess) is mistaken,” Peña wrote in an email.
NEON is expected to declare bankruptcy. Two sources said last week that NEON would declare Chapter 7 bankruptcy this Monday.
Peña labeled Burgess’ email “irrelevant.” He said, “Norwalk and SoNoCC can move on without the negativity and past players that have caused so much damage to our community.”