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Community Center: New London can do this

New London Mayor Michael Passero has doggedly pursued the goal of constructing a community center, from his time on the City Council and through two terms as mayor. In 2016, just months after his election as mayor, Passero faced a humbling defeat when the council blocked his proposal to buy back the former Edgerton School property — it had been sold into the private sector — as the site for a community center.

The mayor learned his lesson. He had asked the council to buy in before he had a plan to sell them on, only the broadest of concepts — a community center. Instead of public support, he faced neighborhood opposition.

Passero’s new plans, unanimously approved by the council on Monday, are more ambitious but also more solidly grounded. The community recreation center is to be built in the Fort Trumbull area, a 62,000-square-foot facility spanning nearly seven acres.

The plan laid out by the consulting group Brailsford & Dunlavey, hired by the city for $140,000, would prioritize youth development and activities but offer something for all segments of this diverse community — families, the growing number of young professionals, seniors, and empty nesters looking to maintain a healthful lifestyle.

The price tag is daunting — $30 million — but New London can do this. It would mean a healthier city, providing a space to come together as a single community. The facility could attract youth sports tournaments, bringing commerce, with an estimated $40 million economic impact over 30 years.

Passero will be looking for state, corporate and federal support to defray one-third or more of the cost. It could be argued that such support should have been lined up before committing local taxpayers, but Passero makes a persuasive case that the community buy-in will make it easier to attract outside dollars.

An expanding tax base, driven by the recent uptick in apartment housing construction tied largely to the expansion of the Electric Boat workforce, can support the bond commitments for the community center and the ongoing school construction without tax increases, according to the administration’s calculations. Even if those calculations prove a bit rosy, there is no question the tax-base growth is real, raising that age-old question: If not now, when?

The plans outlined by Brailsford & Dunlavey conclude that the center can be self-sustaining by way of membership fees and charges assessed to groups using the facilities. It would not become a line-item in the city budget. Fees would be assessed on a sliding scale tied to ability to pay. Institutional support from the private sector would cover the cost of memberships for those without the ability to pay due to income status.

Concerns have been raised about accessibility, particularly for families and young people who live in neighborhoods some distance away — though we do note this is a small city. Passero says plans for developing on-demand rideshare bus service, circulating through the city, could dovetail with community center planning.

While a community center in Fort Trumbull would stimulate commerce, it would not generate property taxes. Rebuilding the tax base was the goal of the urban renewal experiment that the state and city undertook in the late 1990s, infamously using eminent domain to level a small neighborhood there after a pyrrhic victory in the U.S. Supreme Court gave the development agency that authority.

The experiment was a failure. The peninsula remains largely vacant, despite the efforts of successive administrations to market it. Day columnist David Collins used a dismissive question to effectively swat away the suggestion that the community center should be rejected because it does not meet the long-ago goal of generating taxable property.

“Honestly, people are still arguing that the city is supposed to honor the wishes of those who wielded the horrible axes of eminent domain?” Collins asked in a recent column.

It does make such arguments sound inane.

Or as Felix Reyes, the director of the city’s Office of Development and Planning and a key figure in the center’s planning put it, “That vision has expired.”

Indeed, along with Fort Trumbull State Park, a community center could well make the area more attractive to potential developers.

New London is still in the early innings of this game. Architectural design will be critical to complement the beautiful waterside setting and the adjacent historic Fort Trumbull. There are many details to be worked out. Meanwhile, Passero can generate more enthusiasm by securing some of that corporate support.

But the mayor has hooked his dream. Now he has to reel it in.

 

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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