Basketball players, nonprofits prepare for possible sale of Martin Center
New London — On a recent weekday afternoon, the squeaking of sneakers and thumping of a basketball on hardwood reverberated throughout the lower levels of the Richard R. Martin Center on Broad Street.
A five-on-five game was underway in the basement gymnasium, and along with those on the court, several groups of men watched from courtside benches waiting for their turn to jump in. It’s a mix of locals, many former high school players, who came in for the workout and camaraderie.
Basketball on Tuesdays and Thursdays for just about anyone who walks through the doors of the 120 Broad St. building is a tradition here. The specter of losing this unofficial community center is upsetting to many.
“It means everything to the community, to the kids,” said Rakim Thornton, a regular player who doubles on this day as a doorman. “If we don’t have this we don’t have anything. What are the kids going to do?”
Rich Williams, who was playing basketball on Thursday and coaches a recreational basketball team for boys ages 9-12, said he has been playing in the gym since the 1990s and it’s a place where there is no need for chaperones or referees. It’s simply a safe place where arguments are rare and “everybody that comes here leaves their problems at the door.”
The city, which has been marketing the building for years, appears to be closer than ever to hooking a developer. The City Council is expected to meet with city officials behind closed doors on Monday to discuss a potential sale.
The sale of the building, which houses a mix of city departments and nonprofit tenants and the Senior Citizens Center, is part of the city’s plan to cut operating costs and consolidate its offices in leased space. The building is in dire need of renovations and costs the city more than $110,000 annually in operating expenses.
City officials also envision selling off the finance building at 13-15 Masonic St. and the Stanton building at 111 Union St.
The gymnasium also hosts senior citizen activities such as pickle ball and yoga and regular practices for a girls' recreational basketball league.
Recreation Director Tommie Major said he expects his offices and those of the Office of Youth Affairs will move sometime in January. Those offices will shift to the Stanton building to join the city’s Building and Information Technology departments. Another space will be sought for the Whale’s Tales Children’s Book Bank.
Activities are expected to continue in the gymnasium until the city says otherwise.
The Water & Sewer Department, which includes Veolia Water, is looking at a possible move to existing offices at the city-owned wastewater treatment plant, said Joe Lanzafame, the director of Public Utilities. With its online bill pay system, Lanzafame said, the number of visiting customers has been shrinking.
There are other entities scattered throughout the 61,000-square-foot brick building where questions remain about the future. FRESH New London, in the middle of a donation drive to aid struggling families with fresh vegetables, has office space inside and a successful community garden outside. A future developer could want the outdoor space for parking.
Felix Reyes, the director of the Office of Development and Planning, said he has been meeting regularly with FRESH representatives about developments with the building and helping find an alternative location for the community gardens – a plot at Bates Woods being at the top of the list.
“It’s a very difficult conversation because they’re such an integral part of our community,” Reyes said. “A developer coming in may or may not want them there.”
Another difficult conversation came with members of the nonprofit South East Connecticut Community Center of the Blind Inc., which had occupied a modest corner office space for about two decades.
Executive Director Eileen Rose called it “scary news,” for some of the 300 members served by the organization, whose mission is to serve the social, recreational, educational and advocacy needs of the blind and visually impaired while helping them to maintain an independent lifestyle.
“It’s been going on for some time. Now it’s a reality,” she said of the possible sale of the building.
Visitors to the group’s many weekly activities are not only comfortable at the Martin Center but accustomed to the layout, she said. When the organization does move, Rose said, the desire is to find a safe place with access to bus service.
She said Reyes has assured the group the city would pitch in to find a new location.
“I think everything will pan out,” she said.
Built in 1934 as part of the Williams Memorial Institute, a regional high school for girls, the Martin Center was later purchased by the Diocese of Norwich and became part of the St. Bernard High School for Girls.
It was named the Richard R. Martin Center in 1977 in honor of the former mayor and state representative and a champion of the poor and elderly. A plaque on the front of the building calls it the Social Services Center.
City Councilor John Satti said the Martin Center remains an asset and would be a major loss to the city.
“That being said, shame on past administrations for not properly funding maintenance at that building,” Satti said. “Unfortunately, the building maintenance and capital repair (cost) is huge.”
Satti said there is a definite need for a gymnasium, one of the reasons for the recent push for the city to buy land for community center. That effort was blocked by several councilors dissatisfied with the deal negotiated by the city for a site off Colman Street. Satti said he is currently working on negotiating a joint use agreement between the city and the school district to help sort out the use of facilities for various events.
Satti said he predicts that any move by the city to sell off buildings would be taken to a referendum.
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