Finding new uses for old schools a big job in Groton

Groton - Former school buildings dot the Groton landscape as a reminder of the population surge that accompanied World War II and the baby boom that followed.

Fitch Middle School, which closed last year, is the latest in a string of school closings over the past decade that have kept town, city and school officials alike seeking ideas for future use of the vacant or partially used and aging structures.

While there are 10 active schools in Groton serving more than 5,000 students, five former schools are either dormant or hosting interim uses. They include Noank, Groton Heights, Fitch Middle, William Seely and Colonel Ledyard schools. The schools were closed as they outlived their usefulness and newer, larger schools were built.

While ideas continue to be bandied about by the school board for Fitch, a committee has finalized its recommendations for the Noank School. Built in 1949 during a defense industry surge, the Noank school ceased operations in 2007. It was later turned over to the town.

"We're at the point now that where we're ready to go back to the council and put a lease arrangement together for the building and the property," said Noank Fire District Chairman Frank Socha.

Socha, who heads Noank's school reuse committee, said the town had given the village first dibs on use of the 33,000-square-foot facility, which sits on 6 acres in a residential neighborhood.

Plans for the school include a phased rehabilitation that starts at the south end of the school, which contains a gymnasium, kitchen, bathrooms and classrooms. Socha said there is space to accommodate community groups and activities. The school grounds would be used for passive recreation, "throwing Frisbees and that kind of stuff," Socha said.

A leaking roof will need to be fixed and the heating system updated, but Socha said some of the renovations can be performed as the usable space is expanded.

"We're not proposing to use the entire building right off ... but over time, as uses come forward, we can open up more and more rooms. It won't take a lot of money up front," Socha said. "It will have use not just for the fire district, but anyone in Groton that has a need for space."

Costs estimates are still in the works, though Socha said he is hoping to seek some grant funding.

Elsewhere, recommendations are already on the table for the 100-year-old Groton Heights School, which is also owned by the town and now used occasionally for firefighter and police training. It costs the town about $20,000 in yearly maintenance.

A final report issued last year by a reuse committee recommended against selling or demolishing the building, but rather using it for educational and historical purposes or renovated as community space.

City Mayor Marian Galbraith said the former Colonel Ledyard School, a stone's throw from the city municipal building, is presently in the midst of a rehabilitation project.

Asbestos has been removed, and bids are out for replacement of the roof. The city is using $2 million of a bond package approved in 2010 to rehab the structure, updating the heating system and replacing doors and windows.

Galbraith said she envisions the building as an assembly space that could accommodate recreation programs and meeting rooms along with room for city departments to expand from their cramped quarters in the municipal building.

The William Seely School, which closed in 2003 after a 50-year run, now houses many town recreation programs, though its permanent future use is unclear.

Of the schools that have closed in recent memory, Eastern Point School became the Marine Science Magnet High School of Southeastern Connecticut, Mystic Academy became a senior assisted-living center and Northeast is the school administration building.


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