New London officials pitch idea of new recreational facility

New London — The city is seeking proposals for an indoor recreational facility to be built on the grounds of city-owned Calkins Park.

City officials say the proposed prefabricated structure doesn’t quite fit the criteria for the community center talked about in the city for decades. It will be designed instead to host the basketball games and recreational programs displaced when the city sells the Richard R. Martin Center on Broad Street.

Preliminary designs for the approximately 120-by-80-foot building show space enough to accommodate a multi-use basketball court, a fitness room, a classroom, two small offices and locker rooms.

Felix Reyes, director of the city's Office of Development and Community Development, said the impending sale of the Martin Center has created some urgency for the city to find a place to host the programs running there now — everything from basketball and volleyball to pickleball and yoga classes for seniors.

“The mayor and I looked throughout the city for our best options and solutions,” Reyes said. “We need to build a recreational facility in New London. It’s time.”

A request for proposals from architects is being prepared this week and expected to be advertised as early as next week. City officials estimate the cost to be in the $500,000 to $750,000 range but will have better figures once bids are submitted.

Mayor Michael Passero said he would seek support from the community, local businesses and the state to help fund the construction. Initial plans show the building on what is now a playground and outdoor basketball court at the park.

The city is marketing the aging 61,000-square-foot Martin Center — built in 1934 as part of the Williams Memorial Institute — to developers as a prime location for senior housing, with the condition that the buyer lease back to the city the adjoining Senior Citizens Center.

“I think it’s a great idea. If and when the Martin Center gets sold, there is backup for lost space,” said City Councilor John Satti, chairman of the council’s Recreation and Education Committee.

“One of the major losses is going to be the Martin Center gymnasium and locker room space,” Satti said. “We’ve been talking for years about a community center. This is a start.”

Negotiations for the sale of the Martin Center are the subject of ongoing closed-door meetings with the City Council. Officials declined to comment on any details of the negotiations.

Simultaneous to the sale of the Martin Center is a city initiative to consolidate its offices and sell off two other city-owned buildings to help cut maintenance and capital costs. The Recreation Department recently moved its offices from the Martin Center to the city’s Stanton Building at 111 Union St., where the building and information technology departments now reside.

The Martin Center still is home to the Water & Sewer Department and several nonprofits, such as FRESH New London and the South East Connecticut Community Center of the Blind Inc.

Reyes sketched the preliminary designs for the new facility and presented the idea to the Parks and Recreation Commission on Wednesday. He said the cost for the architectural drawings would be paid for with a portion of the $650,000 sale price for Parcel J, now the site of an apartment complex under construction at the corner of Bank and Howard streets.

Reyes said he envisions a capital campaign involving businesses and community members for the new facility.

“We wish we had the funding to pull this together but it’s going to take a community effort that I think is very much achievable,” Reyes said.

The Recreation Department is expected to add input on what the facility would look like. Department Director Tommie Major said he was encouraged by the proactive approach of the city to find space for his department’s programs, which include initiatives by the Office of Youth Affairs.

He said without new space, the programs become too reliant on the school district.

In additional to volleyball and basketball space, Major said the new facility must be versatile and able to host things like after-school programs and dances, for example. He said the proposed site is an appealing one, since Calkins Park, off Crescent Street, is already home to soccer fields, a baseball diamond and walking track with infrastructure such as gas, water and sewer on site.

Passero said state funding is not out of the question and points to the $167,925 the state Bond Commission approved last year, with help from state Rep. Chris Soto, D-New London, for reconstruction of two basketball courts and other work at the city-owned Bartlett Park, off Broad Street.

“In my mind, we can work out a plan to fund it one way or another and we’re hoping for community involvement,” Passero said. “We’re not building the Taj Mahal.”

Passero said he hasn’t given up his dream of a partnership with the YMCA for a full-fledged community center at some point in the future.

Editor's Note: This version corrects the spelling of Calkins Park.


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