The Fairfield Hills Authority members emerged from a brief and at times volatile meeting Wednesday with a motion: to earmark Plymouth Hall as a potential future site for a children's museum, subject to approvals by all town boards and agencies, and fundraising. The motion passed with six in favor, and one opposed.
The concept for Everwonder, a science-oriented children's museum "Hits the sweet spot of what we are trying to accomplish," member Thomas Connors said. Museum proponent Kristin Chiriatti had first brought the idea before the authority roughly a year ago, saying that the museum project would rely entirely on fundraising.
Voicing strong opposition to the museum proposal, member Renata Adler said, "This culturally is exactly what you don't want." Then she added, "It won't draw people," as member Ross Carley suggested. He had said, "We're trying to make Newtown and Fairfield Hills a destination that would bring people to the property."
Ms Adler sensed "an urgency to go through with this because of the tragedy."
She also noted that in the wake of 12/14, "Newtown has been wonderful with not exploiting this tragedy. I think we would lose a lot of dignity, and culturally, it's ugly, illiterate, and exactly wrong."
"I see nothing here that is ugly and [Ms Chiriatti] has done nothing misleading; and exploit? There are a lot of people who want to help," Chairman James Bernardi said. As he would reiterate throughout the meeting, Mr Bernardi saw no problem with Everwonder, "as long as we do nothing, nothing to compete with families of victims and funds dedicated to make them well, not whole, but well, and that was clearly stated." The museum "does not exploit the tragedy in any way," he said.
"But it appears it will exploit," Ms Adler said.
"We're concerned about truth," Mr Bernardi said.
"The town looks perfect, and this does not add to that perfection," Ms Adler said.
"Does this somehow tarnish Newtown," asked Mr Connors.
Ms Adler also took strong issue with the Everwonder logo, which includes a question mark where the O would be. Later in the meeting Mr Bernardi had asked, "Your objection is with the logo?"
"You bet," Ms Adler answered.
Ms Chiriatti had earlier said that "we went with what we liked."
Several minutes later, Mr Bernardi said to Ms Adler, "I accept your opinion," but reminded members, "we're not here to argue opinion."
He refocused the meeting saying that Ms Chiriatti was before them tonight for proof of the authority's support, such as earmarking land, so she could then approach backers.
Mr Carley said the authority had set a precedent in past months by reserving space for the Newtown Ambulance Association, which will soon build a new garage at Fairfield Hills.
Members quickly decided to word the motion to "revisit" the subject of earmarking Plymouth in 6 - 8 months, when the motion could be reconsidered if necessary. The contingency was "enough to make me happy," Ms Adler had said.
By the end of the meeting, all but Ms Adler supported the motion. Opposing the museum concept entirely, she raised her hand to say, "nay."
Letter of Intent
Ms Chiriatti also passed out draft copies of a letter of intent (LOI) to occupy Plymouth Hall. It is a document that will come back to the authority for discussion as soon as at the next meeting, then go before selectmen, and the public, "offering plenty of occasion to debate the proposal," Mr Bernardi said. He also said the current master plan for redevelopment "supports community activities," such as the museum.
When Ms Adler asked if Everwonder were "rushing," Ms Chiriatti had asked Mr Bernardi,"Can I address this?" She stressed, "We are not rushing." Museum supporters had considered a letter of intent in November of 2012, which was obviously pushed back, "until now," she said.
"But what ages, what events [would take place at the museum]?" Ms Adler asked.
"Irrelevant," Mr Carley said.
Mr Bernardi pointed out, "Her proposal matches what is identified [for approved uses] in the master plan."
Ms Adler then added another layer to her argument, saying that the master plan "falls away" after resident Peter D'Amico aired a recent proposal last month for the overall campus reuse, which includes Everwonder.
Addressing the master plan issue, Mr Bernardi said, "The town would have to approve [master plan] changes."
He then mentioned a sense of community on campus represented by projects such as the Victory Garden, which he feels the master plan promotes. "The best aspects of the spirit of our town should be reflected on the campus," he said.
"These are policy questions, and not up to us," Ms Adler said.
Quick to agree, Mr Bernardi said, "Right."
Michael Holmes added, "It's within the keeping of master plan uses; it's now a question of the letter of intent and then go from there."
The authority also agreed to review and discuss a draft letter of intent for the property at its next meeting.