New London makes pitch for state funding to help build community, recreation center

Hartford - New London City Council President Michael Passero told lawmakers Tuesday that if the state gives $8 million for a proposed community and recreation center, the city would contribute another $8 million.

"We're at the stage where we need the state's help to move this project forward," the councilor said at a public hearing before the General Assembly's Commerce Committee.

He and state Sen. Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford, testified in support of a bill to provide up to $8 million in state bonding funds for the community center project, which carries a total estimated price tag of $20 million.

"We need to provide opportunities for our youth, our young people, to have a place to go," Stillman said.

Passero said the city of New London could match the state dollar for dollar through its capital improvement budget. In addition, the New London Community Center Planning Collaborative is seeking one or more partners to contribute $4 million.

Waterford group seeks bonding

The legislative committee also heard testimony on a separate bill that would benefit the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford. That legislation calls for $8 million in bond funding over two years to assist in constructing five new rehearsal spaces, dormitory cottages, a new dining area and an additional theater.

Theater Executive Director Preston Whiteway told lawmakers that the expansion project is "shovel-ready" and poised to begin once funding is secure. "I know this is a challenging time for the state, but this is a business proposition for the O'Neill," Whiteway said.

Plans for the New London community center do not yet include a location. The leading choice so far is the city-owned Bates Woods Park near New London High School.

The center could feature an indoor pool, gymnasium, track, fitness area, meeting rooms, senior center and space for nonprofit and community groups.

Christopher Baker, a New London High School senior and student representative to the Board of Education, testified that the community needs a place offering recreational opportunities for teens.

"Our students are just going home after school," he said. "They're out on the streets or they're just sitting at home watching television."

He noted how the city has lacked an indoor pool since the high school's pool closed last year, forcing the swim team to practice at Waterford High School or Foxwoods Resort Casino.

Legislators seemed receptive to the community center concept.

State Sen. L. Scott Frantz, R-Greenwich, said he is typically reluctant to endorse more spending at a time of tight finances, but plans to vote for the New London bill because community and recreation centers fill an important role.

'An awful lot of money'

Sen. Gary LeBeau, D-East Hartford, said an $8 million state contribution for a community center "seems like an awful lot of money." Yet he became more receptive to the request when he heard that a substantial number of New London residents are in tough economic circumstances and could use such a public amenity.

"Clearly New London is a town that needs help,"

LeBeau said. "I'm sympathetic on those grounds."

Passero said the community center would replace the aging Martin Center and senior center, and obviate the need to repair the high school pool.

The estimated cost of renovating those three amenities is around $8 million, so the city could spend that money instead on the new project, he said.

j.reindl@theday.com

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