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Year In Review: Community Center Plans Move Closer To Construction In 2016



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Often struggling throughout the year, community center planners and town officials succeeded in 2016 in bringing the project closer to construction.

By year's end, the Public Building and Site Commission (PBSC) received from the Board of Selectman (BOS) the authorization to manage the planning and construction of a community center project that includes an aquatic area with no less than four lap lanes and a zero-entry pool component and no less than 13,000 square feet of flexible, multipurpose space, as stated in a BOS motion in November.

Newtown received a $15 million gift through the General Electric Foundation following 12/14. Of that gift, $10 million is meant to build a center, supported by $1 million a year, for five years, for operations.

There are also town Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) funds available for a community center to supplement the project; $5 million has been earmarked for the community center.

The year-end action moving the community center project to the PBSC revealed a concept that had been whittled down from where it began the year. Community Center Commission members in February held four public forums seeking feedback and discussion with residents to help them finalize a proposal. At the time they had shared their vision for a multigenerational hub for all residents. One option - the commission's preference - consisted of a 13,000-square-foot core community center; a 50-meter indoor pool and a zero entry pool, taking up 30,500 square-feet; and a 61,500-square-foot ice rink. Members at the time had believed the components after several years would turn a profit.

A community center with both a 50-meter and a zero entry pool, and an ice rink, would cost an estimated $25 million, offering what Co-chair Brian Hartgraves believed was potential for "positive cash flow" through fees and space rentals. The scenario far exceeded any funds available.

A report from Sports Facilities Advisory (SFA) months later assessed the pool and ice arena options, revealing that both would require town subsidies annually to operate.

The third month of the year saw community center planning clear a hurdle. After months of planning, research, and gathering input from thousands of town residents, Newtown Community Center Commission members (NCCC) appeared before three elected boards over three days, receiving endorsements to send an appropriation request to public vote to authorize spending the $15 million for development and operation of a new community center.

Commission members had also generated a final report explaining that they had "adhered to GE's intent with their donation, provided a final proposal reflective of the majority of town residents, and above all, never lost sight of how a center could potentially be a place our community could come together after the tragedy of the Sandy Hook School shooting."

NCCC's community center concept at that time, as proposed by the NCCC, would be to build a public multipurpose building between 13,000 and 18,000 square feet containing community gathering spaces and multipurpose rooms suitable for various indoor activities, along with an aquatic complex containing a zero-entry activity pool, and a separate 50-meter competition-size pool. This plan was later scaled back, after lengthy consultation with the SFA.

Although the size of the pool would change in coming months, other concepts did not, such as creating a center that would become a community hub and gathering place bringing residents together.


Mid-March saw a referendum announcement for April 5

More Informational Forums

Weeks prior to the referendum, Newtown's Commission on Aging held a series of four forums and information exchanges for the "seniors and boomers" of Newtown to help clarify any confusion regarding the content of the community center proposal and upcoming April 5 referendum on the issue, according to commission Chairman Curt Symes. Sessions were well attended.

Seniors, in the past, had expressed concerns that the shared, multipurpose space in a community center would not meet their needs. In years past and prior to GE's gift as Newtown budgeted and planned earlier renditions of a Community/Senior Center, plans had failed in part due to the seniors' preference for their own facility.

Similarly, town officials held public briefings about the community center planning and upcoming referendum. And taking a final opportunity to talk about the upcoming referendum, First Selectman Pat Llodra, several other town officials, and NCCC members addressed the media on March 29. Mrs Llodra handed out a question and answer packet addressing the 2013 gift from the GE Foundation of $15 million for the development, construction, and operation of a community center. The information clarified the gift and source of funds for the community center planning. From GE is $10 million to design and build, and another $5 million to underwrite at least five years of operating expenses.

The town is bonding an additional $5 million approved in the year's Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) to supplement the initial $10 million capital gift given to the community by GE after the 12/14 tragedy. "We have arrived at a juncture with a proposal," Mrs Llodra noted at the press briefing. The first selectman said the session represented a "last effort to make sure residents have the correct information."

On that day officials, including Board of Finance Chair James Gaston, had expressed their hopes for a new community center. "A community center idea is broad and can touch so many people," said Mr Gaston. There is "breadth in the community," and a new center "will attract attention."

"There is great value in bringing people together, and connecting in a social way," Mrs Llodra said, which is the donor's intent. The community center idea "was so people could share experiences, grow together on a journey of healing and hope."

Another small step toward success came days later when, minutes after the referendum polls closed on April 5, the voters approved and accepted the spending request for community center plans.

Voters that Tuesday passed a proposal for a 43,000-square-foot facility with flexible programming space for the community and an aquatics area with both a gradual or zero-entry pool, and a larger 50-meter multipurpose pool.

The project is intended to serve the community and offer a place for people to gather and be together. It is intended for all residents to use the facility - seniors, toddlers, adults, teens, families, as well as local organizations and groups. Later planning stages would eventually reveal a scaled back aquatics component.

On April 26, the Newtown Community Center Commission's work was complete, and the group was decommissioned. With the proposal passed at referendum, planning can now move forward as another group, including architects, designs the structure.

Mrs Llodra at that time asked several commission members to stay involved with planning.

The Next Steps

"I want to keep some of you in the discussion," she said. "You can be an anchor point along the pathway of decisions."

"After tonight you are no longer a formal group, but at some point you need an advisory group," the first selectman added. Many members, along with others in the community, formed a task force to work with consultants in establishing what components the center would contain.

It is during this phase of planning that members realized that a 50-meter pool would not be feasible.

Spring soon turned to summer before residents heard any updates about a community center. Since then, the town had established members of an Ad Hoc Community Center Advisory Committee including former Community Center Commission members, Parks and Recreation Department members, and others. The town had also contracted with Florida-based Sports Facility Advisory (SFA) to help determine the facility's future use. The SFA's experienced assessments in coming weeks would alter community center concepts, recommending that a 50-meter pool would not be feasible.

Town staff were also working to "get a handle on project costs," Mrs Llodra had explained. "We will proceed with design as soon as we feel confident about the scope of the project.

"We are seeking good data to help guide decision making before we get into the design phase," the first selectman added.

As lazy late August days descended, planning and consulting with the SFA continued. A conference call with the consulting firm provided an overview that Community Center Advisory Committee members found "disappointing."

During a late-month telephone call with Evan Eleff of SFA, retained by Newtown to assess the expenses and revenues of running an aquatic center and pool, and community/multipurpose space, he had said,

"Expenses exceed revenue by a healthy margin." He had been delivering a draft report of his firm's feasibility study. Advisory committee member Bill Buchler asked, "What did we not factor in? We thought this would make some money."

"It's the pool," said Mr Eleff. Although the pool was expected to generate revenue, he said that "in reality only a few pools on a national average recover costs." Members then began to reassess what they could accomplish with the funds available.

As committee members pondered ways to readjust their planning, Mrs Llodra saw the challenge in bringing a new facility to Newtown. "I want to find a way to bring the right and best thing without creating a tax burden," Mrs Llodra said. "This is a difficult project. We want to accomplish something substantially good for the town and sometimes aspirations could be bigger than our capacity, and we have to balance funds with capacity."

Planners will have to also consider "whether this project is balanced; we don't know yet," Mrs Llodra said. The goal is a sustainable community center. "If data says it's not sustainable and will require support, we have to figure out if that is right."

Since planning began, Community Center Commission members and now advisory committee members strove for a center that would not be a burden to taxpayers.

Easing in with the autumn leaves in early September were considerations for a 25-yard pool component to a community center facility.

SFA had recently provided information for that configuration. Regarding that pro forma, Mrs Llodra confirmed that "SFA's analysis determined that funding is sufficient to build the entire facility of aquatics components and flexible/programmable space. However, SFA's analysis of projected costs for the facility to operate show that program/membership revenues would not be sufficient to cover the operational costs."

Geralyn Hoerauf with the firm STV/DPM, retained by the town to act as the town's representative throughout the planning, design, and construction of the Newtown Community Center, said, "This is a fact-finding mission. Part of retaining SFA was to provide data so the town can decide what to support going forward." The financials for a smaller pool still showed a facility that would need to be "subsidized" each year, according to the SFA.

Town officials and advisory committee members began refining numbers of costs and revenue.

The Board of Selectmen in October had approved a community center concept, and by December the project was in the Public Building and Site Commission's (PBSC) hands. The PBSC manages planning and construction of municipal projects.

The year ended as the Board of Selectmen authorized the PBSC to proceed with community center development. A selectmen's motion a month earlier had stated, "To forward a community center project that includes an aquatic area with no less than four lap lanes and maximize the zero-entry pool … no less than 13,000 square feet of flexible, multipurpose space."

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