Location is a challenge as organizers try to bring free dental clinic to Hartford

For each of the past six years, the Connecticut Mission of Mercy has drawn thousands of patients to its annual two-day free dental clinic. Each clinic has been held in a different part of the state, and for the past couple of years, organizers have been hoping to hold one in Hartford.

It’s a community with many people who could use a free visit with a dentist, they figure, and a good place to draw policymakers’ attention to the thousands of people in the state who lack regular access to dental care.

But clinic organizers are not confident it will happen anytime soon, because they say they haven’t been able to find a venue in Hartford they can afford.

“Everybody says, ‘Oh, we’d love to have you come to Hartford,’ but nobody right now is really working to help make it happen for us on the financial side,” said Dr. Bruce Tandy, a former president of the Connecticut State Dental Association and co-chairman of the free clinic.

For the previous clinics, in Tolland, New Haven, Middletown, Waterbury, Danbury and Bridgeport, the venues have waived rent or charged less than $10,000, clinic organizers said. As a result, site costs have typically been a nominal part of the approximately $250,000 to $300,000 in direct expenses it costs to hold the clinics, which treat about 2,000 people.

They haven’t found such an offer in Hartford.

Tandy said the clinic’s particular needs — at least 40,000 square feet and 1,500 parking spaces — mean only two sites in Hartford are suitable: The Connecticut Convention Center and the XL Center.

The organization had some talks with the XL Center, but an impending change in the center’s management has complicated the process, Tandy said.

As for the convention center, clinic organizers said they were told the cost would be more than $100,000. While the rent would be relatively reasonable, Tandy said, they would have been required to pay other costs, including labor and food, that would raise the price significantly.

Food was a particular stumbling block, Tandy said. The convention center has its own catering contract, and Tandy said the clinic would have been unable to bring in outside food. Typically, the clinic gets food donated by local restaurants and chains like McDonald’s and Subway to feed the more than 1,500 volunteers. Some, including the Red Cross, also provide food and drinks for people waiting in line, some of whom arrive the day before and wait outside overnight to secure a spot.

“For the number of people and the amount of food that we would need, that would be exorbitant,” said Carol Dingeldey, the dental association’s executive director. “More than half of the food for volunteers and for patients, the bottled water and granola bars and things like that, are donated to us.”

Michael Costelli, the convention center’s general manager, said that when the facility’s staff began costing out the clinic organizers’ requests, it was clear the expenses would be cost-prohibitive for the clinic. Among the factors: The cost of housekeeping, lights, escalators, heating or air conditioning, and, potentially, tables and chairs.

“Anything that’s going to take labor to provide, there’s a cost for labor and there’s a cost for the goods,” he said.

Costelli said he didn’t recall being part of discussions about food. But, he said, “Any food served in the building needs to be purchased in the building.”

That’s consistent with how most facilities of the convention center’s size work, said Terryl Mitchell Smith, director of marketing and public relations for the Capital Region Development Authority, which oversees the convention center. The convention center is owned by the state and privately managed.

“You couldn’t go to Aqua Turf and say, ‘We want to bring in our own food,’” Smith said, referring to the Southington banquet hall.

Tandy said the Mission of Mercy is different.

“Most of the places we go, they understand that, number 1, we’re a charitable organization. Number 2, as my wife says, it’s not a home show. There’s no particular benefit to us other than giving back to the community,” he said.

Much of the money that the clinic spends goes toward renting portable dental equipment. Other costs include paying for custodial staff and a local electrician and plumber, fundraising and publicity-related expenses, any food that’s needed to supplement what’s donated, and, sometimes, police overtime costs.

The dental work is donated, and volunteers set up and take down the equipment. The service that handles the biomedical waste is donated.

Last year’s clinic, held at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury, had about $269,000 in expenses and about $212,000 in in-kind services, Dingeldey said. This year’s clinic, held last week at the Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport, was budgeted to cost $330,000, with an additional $215,000 in in-kind services.

For that clinic, Bridgeport officials asked that Webster Bank Arena get involved, said Charles J. Dowd Jr., the arena’s vice president for operations. The facility donated the rent and tried to mitigate other costs, he said, including by calling in full-time staff rather than those paid hourly.

“Some people were very gracious in giving their time and the like,” Dowd said. “We just worked really hard to make it an affordable event because it impacts the community so dramatically.”

The arena has a contract with a catering firm, Centerplate, and the clinic organizers purchased some food from them, but at a significantly reduced rate, Tandy said.

Smith said the convention center in Hartford doesn’t have a way to waive costs for particular groups. Nothing is given away to any group that another group would have to pay for, she said. Otherwise, there would be a slippery slope: How do you decide which group gets a break and which doesn’t?

“Our costs are our costs,” Smith said. “We try to be fair to everybody.”

She suggested the clinic consider other venues.

“The fact of the matter is that there are just some pieces of business that just can’t afford to be at the convention center,” she said. “There’s plenty of options besides the convention center that they can certainly pursue here in Hartford.”

Costelli suggested the XL Center and the state Armory would be suitable alternatives, although Tandy said the Armory doesn’t have enough parking and the indoor space is too chopped up.

“The door wasn’t necessarily closed, but based on what we do know about the event, their budget just wouldn’t provide for them to be here and to get the services that would need to be provided,” Costelli said.

Dingeldey, the dental association’s executive director, said she hopes there will be a way to come to an agreement with the convention center, which she considers the ideal location. Tandy said its size could allow for a combined medical and dental clinic.

So far, they haven’t determined where next year’s clinic will be held. They might hold smaller clinics, which would allow them to go to southeastern Connecticut, where organizers haven’t been able to find a site with enough space and parking for a full-scale clinic. Or they’ll consider returning to places that have already hosted clinics, Tandy said.

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