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By Kendra Bobowick
“It looks beautiful,” said resident Debra Sullivan, who was among a handful of residents looking at architectural renderings of the most recent Community Center and Senior Center design. The two components are being designed as one building.
“But, we’re spending money on a fireplace,” she said, which is one feature in the Senior Center lobby. She then asked, “Why not use money on a functional pool? Newtown does not provide a pool” for students who swim competitively. “Why not direct costs to the pool?” she questioned.
Ms Sullivan joined several other residents at the August 22 brief Community Center/Senior Center Design Team and Advisory Committee meeting to hear updates from Quisenberry Arcari, architects, and John Deren of Caldwell and Walsh.
Answering Ms Sullivan, First Selectman Pat Llodra replied, “These are separate projects funded by separate actions.” Money for the senior center — $3 million coming from town Capital Improvement Plan funds — cannot be applied to anything other than the senior center, Mrs Llodra said. Another $15 million is available for a community center. A 2013 gift from the GE Foundation of $15 million is intended to fund the development, construction, and operation of a community center. From GE are $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 this year’s Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) to supplement the initial $10 million capital gift given to the community by GE after 12/14.
Advisory Committee member Kinga Walsh also responded to questions about the pool size, and why it is not the larger 50-meter option, which would be preferred for Newtown’s swim team. Legal language in the referendum to approve use of funds for the community center included the phrase of “up to 50 meters,” which ultimately was not affordable, Ms Walsh said. “We went through a lot of variations, and we heard the swim concerns,” Ms Walsh said.
The planning committee did look at different variations of pools, and looked at cost differences “between competitive and just swimming” she said. A competitive-size pool was roughly $2 million more. “We didn’t have the money,” Ms Walsh said. The 50-meter pool was “not an option, unfortunately. We tried to compromise.”
“This is a community pool, not a competitive pool,” Advisory Committee member Brian Hartgraves said.
Resident Adele Unger said, “It’s great we’re building a senior center,” but she made the argument that it is not helping the swim team.
“This is the project,” said Mrs Llodra. “This is where we are. I know it is not what you want to hear, but this is the project.”
Within the new building’s more than 45,000 square feet of enclosed space there would be the community center, the senior center, two swimming pools and related facilities, plus shared space for mechanical equipment. The facility will be located directly across Simpson Street from the southern entrance to Newtown Municipal Center. The primary entrance for the senior center would be on the west side of the new building.
Adjoining open land will function as a “green,” and serve as a site for outdoor events. A bandshell, amphitheater, and water feature could be located near the structure in the future.
Architects hope to beak ground no later than early October.
Again speaking to residents concerned about the pool, Mrs Llodra said, “We struggled greatly with this for about four years. I, too, would have liked to achieve more,” but plans “exhausted resources … this is what we could achieve.”
Tina Marsh does not want the new facility to be a tax burden, and asked how to avoid that scenario. Business models are being developed, Ms Walsh said.
On Wednesday afternoon, Mrs Llodra considered the project, and its effort to serve all of the community. “We could not create the project scope” for which planners originally hoped. “Just not enough money” was available, she said. Community center planners “tried to maximize aquatic space and create as much community space as possible.” Planning meant compromise. “And with every compromise there are always people not satisfied…the advisory committee tried to listen to every voice, while understanding the project scope could not meet needs of everyone. The Advisory Committee has met as best they can the hearts and minds of the community,” Mrs Llodra said.
Referring to her remarks the prior evening when she said, “This is the project. This is where we are.” Mrs Llodra said she hoped her comments were “framed with the right sense of humility.” The planning has been going on for about four years with “fits and starts, but this iteration” has been achieved through the “dedication of the Advisory Committee to reach out to the community, and they have been as communicative as possible.” However, Mrs Llodra said that despite efforts to inform and reach residents, “Some people are coming late to the discussion, which is a reminder of how difficult it is that message reaches the community.
“We can only build a project that our resources can afford,” she said.
The current Advisory Committee “has been extraordinary in their commitment and been with it through several years of challenges. They have persisted in bringing forth a project that serves the greatest good. And I feel they have done that well,” she added.
Mrs Llodra said, “We all wish we could have accomplished everything we set out to accomplish, but fiscal reality is we don’t have resources to do what we had hoped to do.”
Of those who asked about the aquatic/pool component Tuesday evening, she said, “What I was hearing was disappointment.”
Learn more about the project at Newtown Community Center on Facebook, or visit the town website, newtown-ct.gov where the most recent versions of architectural renderings are available as of Wednesday evening, August 23, the first selectman said. Documents are also attached to the Board of Selectmen presentation and minutes from June 20, 2017, and a more recent version is available at newtown-ct.gov under Community Center/Senior Center — accessible from the main page.