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Merger of Arc Nature Coast and Center for Independence expected to benefit both

Mark Barry, executive director of the Arc Nature Coast in Hernando County, had discussed a merger with the Center for Independence in Pasco multiple times.

Both organizations are chapters of the Arc of the United States, which provides services for adults who have intellectual and developmental disabilities. The Arc Nature Coast serves more than 200 people; the Center for Independence serves about 30.

But the prospect of a merger overwhelmed the Center's board. So when its executive director retired last year after nearly 40 years on the job, the board turned down Barry's offer to combine forces. Instead, it hired a new director.

Six months later, however, the Center, based in New Port Richey, found itself leaderless again. Recalling Barry's offer, the board asked if it still stood. It did.

"And we decided to make the commitment," Barry said.

In January, the organizations, whose names will not change, entered a management agreement to initiate the merger, which technically is an acquisition.

"We could have dissolved both (nonprofits) and started a new one," Barry said. But logistically, absorbing the Center made more sense. The organizations' boards call it a merger because the decision to do it was mutual.

The merger, Barry said, will eliminate duplications.

"We each have two separate (computer) servers and two separate email services, separate databases for managing customer information," he said.

Over time, one of each will be chosen, and everything will be combined.

Each county's staff remains unchanged. All of the Center's employees already are on the Arc Nature Coast's payroll, and the Center's finance director eventually will do that job for both, because the Arc Nature Coast's finance director already had planned to retire.

Five members of the Center for Independence's board of directors have joined the Arc Nature Coast's board.

"Their board members were very excited, and so were ours," said John DiRienzo, president of the Arc Nature Coast's board.

Both groups believed the merger would be mutually advantageous.

"We've been able to extract the best practices from both organizations," Barry said. "That's one big benefit."

Barry anticipates that the merger also will be a benefit to the community.

"Having a larger footprint will help for (access to) local grants and charitable support," he said.

And becoming one organization will result in further growth.

"Even though Pasco County is three times (Hernando County's) size, the reason our organization is larger in Hernando is that we don't have as many competitors," Barry said.

Several centers in Pasco provide services similar to those the Center for Independence offers, including the Angelus, the Red Apple School and A.F.I.R.E.

Barry said the merger will bring something to the Center, and to the community around it, that it hasn't had before: innovation.

"There's so much potential in Pasco," he said. "A lot of opportunities haven't been tapped, and I get excited about that."

A big part of what the Center for Independence provides is residential services in three group homes: one in New Port Richey, one in Shady Hills and one in Zephyrhills. A fourth group home is being renovated. There also are education centers in New Port Richey and Dade City, where customers can participate in skills training.

The Arc Nature Coast also provides residential services. And it has two Hernando campuses where adults who have intellectual and developmental disabilities participate in skills training.

"We teach people how to make a purchase at a store, order from a restaurant, check out a book at a library," Barry said.

In addition, each organization provides customers with opportunities for recreation, and with transportation. Collectively, it has a fleet of about 50 vehicles.

Unlike the Center for Independence, the Arc Nature Coast facilitates employment for adults with disabilities who need it. It provides job placement either by connecting customers with employers who hire them, or by hiring the customers to participate in the Arc's enclave program.

Those customers are employed by the Arc, which transports them to businesses with whom the Arc has a contract to do janitorial, production, packaging or assembly work.

"We even roll silverware at Carrabba's every day," Barry said.

Providing the same service is a priority in Pasco, DiRienzo said.

The service is a benefit to adults with disabilities, he said, and to the community.

"Too many times we look at the disabilities, not the abilities," he said. The employment program "gives the community more awareness of the capabilities of these folks."

With the merger, the organization can facilitate that on a larger scale.

Said Barry: "We'll be such a stronger organization for this population than we would have been if we had remained separate."

Contact Arleen Spenceley at aspenceley@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6235. Follow @ArleenSpenceley.

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