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    Saturday, June 10, 2023

    Centering the New London community

    New London Mayor Michael Passero believes so adamantly in the city’s need for a recreation-oriented community center that he kept the idea alive, in spite of setbacks, throughout his time on the City Council and all the way into his two terms as mayor.

    As Passero prepares to campaign this year for a third term, construction of a New London Community Center has a site — four acres on the Fort Trumbull peninsula — and the majority of its funding — about $40 million in federal and state awards and municipally bonded funds. Like most municipal projects, this one has had its critics, but the city now looks likely to have a center next year.

    The Day has questions about the accessibility of the site for youth without transportation and the feasibility of the mayor’s contention that the center’s revenues will fully sustain its projected $2 million annual budget. We have no reservations at all about the need to build a sense of community in a city that is often segregated along socioeconomic lines. The mayor and council are right to bet that a new facility programmed for indoor recreation for all ages will increase not only athletic opportunities but a sense of civic pride.

    New London is a sports-minded community with notable high school and youth league teams. The city has a fair share of outdoor athletic and recreation spaces. Yet indoor rec facilities were allowed to age and decay.

    Asked how the city described its goals for the center in applying for state Community Investment Funding, the mayor summed it up: to address the health disparities in a poor community, including opening an indoor pool; and to provide the opportunities children in the suburbs enjoy. “We expect this to level the playing field,” he said, evidently with no pun intended.

    Obviously, that’s asking more than a pool, gym, meeting rooms, kitchen and Recreation Department offices can provide on their own. It may well be, however, that a single, up-to-date facility consolidating those amenities and excellent programming for children through senior citizens can become the happening place.

    A feasibility study indicated that adults and families from a three- to five-mile radius, not limited to New London, are likely to join the community center to use its facilities. Memberships will be priced on a sliding scale, relative to ability to pay. The city will seek bids from firms experienced in managing such facilities, with a requirement that the center be able to pay for its own annual operating costs. As it does with other bonded funding, New London will pay the debt service.

    For a project that may be the largest since the city developed Ocean Beach as a municipal facility that also welcomes non-residents, New London has settled on the Fort Trumbull area, east of the Amtrak rails and bordering the Thames River. The neighborhood just south of downtown includes the historic fort and state park. Unlike the earlier preference for the former Edgerton School site, it is not close by neighborhoods where most of the city’s youth live.

    Critics have challenged the idea that young people will gravitate to the community center, arguing that the location is too hidden away and too long a walk. The mayor says he consulted with coaches who assured him that the city’s young athletes have always gotten themselves to sports practices. If transportation proves to be an issue, the city will address it, he said. It seems likely that it will become a need and an expense, but if local public transportation were to come out of this project, that could ultimately lead to a more livable city for all residents.

    The Fort Trumbull neighborhood became a household name when the U.S. Supreme Court decided in the city’s favor on eminent domain taking of the land. The episode pitted the city against some of its own residents. For nearly two decades since, much of the property has remained empty, its land remediated but fallow. Dedicating a small parcel for a center that brings people together for recreation and health is a good move.

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