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New London approves $30 million community recreation center

New London — A $30 million community recreation center — an idea talked about for decades — will be built at Fort Trumbull under a plan unanimously endorsed by the City Council on Monday.

The facility, still in the planning phase, is being praised by advocates who say the city is in desperate need of indoor recreational space, especially considering the sale last year of the Richard R. Martin Center, which had been home to the Recreation Department offices and a variety of youth and senior activities.

The new 62,000-square-foot facility would be built on 6.8 acres at Fort Trumbull, a site that has elicited some pushback from residents who have argued the city is using prime real estate better suited for a taxpaying entity. Several people expressed support for the project while a few voiced concerns about the cost during a City Council meeting on Monday.

“Growing up we had the Martin Center but that’s about it. It was limited space and a very old building that needed a lot of work,” Janelle Colon, a lifelong resident of New London, said in a letter to the council.

“In a town where sports are very relevant, a community center is needed desperately. Not only for the kids but the community as whole. Children can get help with school or seniors can attend a knitting class. Or a single mom can get help with (child care) after school. These things are needed in every community. So why not ours?” she said.

“I’m a mother of 2 children who live in this community and I really hope that my kids have a place to go and be excited that it’s right in their city,” Colon said.

New London NAACP Vice President Tamara Lanier said one of the recurring responses to the question "How to move the city forward?" at NAACP forums through the years was the development of a community center.

“It’s an investment in our young people. It’s an investment in our elderly and it’s an investment in positive and instructive programming in the city of New London,” Lanier said.

The proposed facility would house a two-court gymnasium, six-lane indoor pool, lounge and game room, six multi-purpose rooms and administrative offices and space to house the city’s Recreation and Youth Affairs departments. The design is still subject to change.

The estimated $2.1 million in annual operating costs would be funded through membership fees and rental income. Brailsford and Dunlavey, the firm hired by the city to develop the plan, tentatively puts membership costs at $6 per day, $30 per month and $300 per year. Lower- and moderate-income families would pay lower rates on a sliding scale based on income.

The city projects that revenues will exceed operational costs by the fourth year in operation. Those revenues combined with potential funding from corporate sponsors and fundraising efforts would contribute to a capital improvement fund and help defray the project's debt. The city would pay an average of $2.2 million per year over 20 years to pay back the money borrowed for the project.

City officials also expect that tax revenues from development projects being built or planned for the city will lessen any impact on taxpayers.

Answering critics wary of building on land primed for economic development, Felix Reyes, director of the city's Office of Development and Planning, said he expected the facility to act as an amenity for housing developments under construction in the area, help reinvigorate interest in the remaining undeveloped parcels at Fort Trumbull and have ripple effects for small businesses.

Fort Trumbull was at the center of the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court case Kelo v. New London. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Connecticut Supreme Court’s ruling that the New London Development Corp., acting on behalf of the city, could use its eminent domain power to seize 15 parcels from seven property owners in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood in the name of economic development.

The city, through its development arm, now known as the Renaissance City Development Association, has seen development proposals come and go through the years, some of them stymied by a lawsuit that has since been settled. The community recreation center will be located on parcels 3B and 3C, between the city’s water treatment plant and an office building at 1 Chelsea St.

“It is time to look toward New London's future and beyond time to start development at Fort Trumbull. This community center will do both,” Bryan Doughty said in written comments to the council.

Doughty, a member of the Board of Education, said the community center will be a valued partner with the school district, “a place where our students can go and learn, play sports, or simply hang out. Along with two new school projects and this community center, the future is beyond bright for both our students and our entire community.”

Councilor Kevin Booker Jr. said the entire council has listened to the community about its needs. “I want to see our community continue to grow,” he said. “This is something we believe in. This is something we know we need for the community.”

Councilor Curtis Goodwin said a community center could provide "generational changes to marginalized members of the community" and reminded residents of the at-risk youth displaced with the loss of the programs housed at the Martin Center.

Discussions on a new community center started almost immediately after the New London YMCA on Meridian Street closed in 1981. The most recent effort was a push by Mayor Michael Passero in 2016 to purchase the former Edgerton School property for $350,000. The City Council at the time balked at the idea of a land purchase without a set plan in place. Neighbors fought the proposal.

Passero said Monday's approval would put the city in a position to ask for additional funding.  

g.smith@theday.com

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