Crowd size overwhelms Itasca hearing on Haymarket rehab center plans
Itasca plan commissioners admitted they underestimated public interest in a proposed addiction treatment center when a crowd representing 16% of the town's population packed their meeting Wednesday night.
More than 1,300 people jammed the gym and cafeteria at Peacock Junior High School, forcing commissioners to postpone the hearing so village officials can find a venue large enough for an energized opposition group.
Demonstrators marched earlier Wednesday evening through downtown Itasca to pressure a Chicago nonprofit group to abandon plans to convert a hotel into a 200-bed drug and alcohol treatment center.
For months, resistance against the Haymarket Center proposal in the town of 8,700 has taken the form of yard signs, social media outrage, letter campaigns and matching blue T-shirts.
But on Wednesday, both pro- and anti-Haymarket forces stepped up their efforts by holding dueling rallies before what would have been the first public hearing on the longtime provider's request to open the treatment center in a Holiday Inn.
Even before project foes showed up en masse, commissioners had already set aside three dates -- Oct. 2, Oct. 16 and Oct. 30 -- in case they needed to continue public testimony.
"Despite making extensive plans to hold the meeting in the largest public space in Itasca, using both the gym and cafeteria, the crowd exceeded the Fire District's maximum capacity of 1,350," Itasca Mayor Jeff Pruyn said in a statement. "At 7 p.m., the District estimated 200-300 more people were waiting to get in. ... According to public hearing procedures, if there are people who want to attend a hearing but cannot gain entrance, the hearing has to be postponed."
The opposition echoes some of the backlash to Haymarket's failed bid to use a former medical office building near a Wheaton shopping center for a 16-bed program.
More than a year after Wheaton's city council rejected those plans, Haymarket leaders announced they wanted to buy a much larger Itasca building -- the Holiday Inn along Irving Park Road -- to house hundreds of patients with substance abuse disorders.
Prominent politicians, advocates and other nonprofit groups have thrown their support behind Haymarket, maintaining that the center would address a shortage of easily accessible residential programs for recovering addicts in DuPage County. Proponents also say much of the outcry stems from the stigma around opioid addiction.
"No one is immune from this disease, not anyone from Itasca, unfortunately," said Felicia Miceli, whose 24-year-old son, Louie, a former Driscoll Catholic High School student-athlete, died from a heroin overdose on Aug. 7, 2012.
Miceli and other mothers gathered outside the junior high to memorialize their children and to call for more treatment options in DuPage, where nearly 100 people died from overdoses last year.
Miceli and Laura Fry silently greeted marchers with pictures of their children. Fry held an image taken two weeks ago of her son, Alexander, when he was training families on how to use Narcan, an opiate overdose reversal drug. Five years ago, he was a homeless heroin user.
"His life matters. I firmly believe that he would not be here today were it not for treatment," Fry said. "We do recover. There is hope, and this is what you can become."
The National Safety Council, based in Itasca down the street from the Holiday Inn, also released a lengthy statement Monday endorsing the Haymarket center.
"Miseducation perpetuates stigma, and stigma is a common barrier to treatment, not just for communities but for those who are struggling with addiction and dependency," the statement reads. "In order to save lives, we must approach addiction the same way we approach all chronic illnesses, and that means expanding access to proven treatment options."
Opponents have focused their main objections on the size and location of a facility they say would put too much of a burden on the village's police and ambulance services.
"We're not near a hospital that can really help and facilitate their medical needs," said Christine Henert, who's lived in Itasca for 11 years. "So that's what we're about. That's what the stance is. It's not about being against people who have alcohol or drug addiction issues. It's really just getting them the right place and the right treatment and the right resources."
The fire protection district has just one ambulance and needed voters to approve a property tax hike last fall to help balance its budget.
There were 863 emergency calls requiring a response from Haymarket's Chicago headquarters in a single year, according to residents who gathered the information through a FOIA request. The Chicago site is twice the size of what's proposed for Itasca.
Haymarket officials have said they would contract a private ambulance service to handle calls in Itasca.
Residents also have taken issue with the proximity of the site to a water park, the library, park district and schools.
There also are fears over revenue loss: The hotel currently generates roughly $250,000 in annual tax dollars, including $150,000 in property taxes.
"I think we're worried about the ramifications around our town being able to handle a situation like this," said Russ Voypick, who joined in the march. "It's just a lot for us, and we're small and I think there's a lot of other places here within DuPage that might be able to handle this a little bit better than us."