Llodra: Pause Will Help Town To Find A Way Forward With Community Center
Only two men attempted to attend a community center information session Tuesday evening, March 31. They didn’t get word that it had been canceled several hours earlier.
The cancellation followed the announcement earlier in the day that First Selectman Pat Llodra, in a brief statement, had recommended to the Board of Selectman that a vote on April 28 concerning the community center “not go forward as planned.” Future public forums on April 2 and 9 have also been canceled. Residents would have had the opportunity on April 28 during the annual budget referendum to cast a vote on the receipt and use of a $15 million gift from the GE Foundation for a three-phased community center project.
Speaking about her decision Tuesday, Mrs Llodra said she “spent a sleepless night, and decided we have to take a pause here, let’s go back to the Board of Selectmen and decide how to go forward.” The decision “has been on my mind for a while. I have felt unsettled,” she said.
Mrs Llodra expects to discuss the issue at the April 6 Board of Selectman’s meeting, scheduled for 7:30 pm at Newtown Municipal Center.
A series of community forums had already been held, most recently on March 24, to introduce residents to a multi-phased plan for a community center project. The project would have begun with a first phase of a senior and aquatic center to be followed by additional community center construction and/or the acquisition of NYA Sports & Fitness Center. Funding for Phase I would rely on the $15 million GE gift, while funding for future phases would have come from the use of Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) funds.
While presenting plans recently, however, Mrs Llodra realized residents were confused with the project, and she said she was hearing that some felt their voices “aren’t being heard, and more than anything, that’s important.”
A project meant to expand facilities and programming for seniors, the recreation department administration, add community activity space, include two pools, and more, “was supposed to bring us together,” Mrs Llodra said. “What I was hearing was divisive and that’s not healthy,” she said, regarding recent public conversation and comment.
Intending to greet residents who had not known about Tuesday’s meeting cancellation, community center advisory committee members Andrew Clure and Bob Geckle waited in the Edmond Town Hall lobby. Just past 7 pm, when the meeting had been scheduled to begin, they told the men about the cancellation, and handed each the statement drafted by Mrs Llodra a few hours earlier. Mr Clure and Mr Geckle had each spent more than a year involved with the community center advisory committee.
Despite the time invested in the project, Mr Geckle said of Mr Llodra’s decision, “I fully understand the decision to pause.
“We need to regroup for more community input,” he added.
Mr Clure added of the recent, well attended information meetings, “Whether for or against, I am glad to see people getting involved.”
“We certainly need to reset the decision making process,” Mrs Llodra said. “We need to be creative,” she said.
The current phased project proposed new and larger combined space for seniors and the community and “ultimately it makes sense for everyone to be [at the Fairfield Hills] campus here,” but recent proposals “became a lightning rod for criticism,” she said. Some residents questioned the decision to include the senior center in the first phase, which would have used all of the GE gift. Officials have plans and means of funding in place for future phases, Mrs Llodra said, but “Maybe we tried to accomplish too much.
“I am not afraid to take a step back and say, ‘Maybe we did not get it right,’” she added. “If I don’t have confidence why would I be a spokesperson” for plans as they are at the moment. She sees “no harm rethinking this,” she said, adding, “We will be fine in the end, or better. We have learned a lot.”
Must project planning start over again? “Maybe not,” Mrs Llodra said. She wants to hear what the selectmen have to say, and wants to find the “right starting point or vision” for the project, and wonders if enough collaboration has taken place.
“The pathway forward is about sharing and cooperation,” she said.
Will GE wait and see what the town wants to do? Mrs Llodra trusts that they will, she said.
“They are honorable and they want us to take this gift and use it to benefit our community and I think they understand the difficulty in the process. I trust they understand we need to step back. What we have lost is time.”
A referendum to pass the project with voters “would still be necessary,” Mrs Llodra said. “I feel a referendum maximizes the public’s ability to engage in the issue,” she said, adding “Monday the 6th is when I will begin talking about it.”
All of the advisory committee’s work is valuable, she said. During their process of visiting other senior and community centers, “there was so much learning going on, their body of work will go to the next group that picks up the task.” She said the committee’s work would inform future proposals.