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New London pitches idea for regional recreation center at Fort Trumbull

New London — There have long been two stumbling blocks to a community center: a location and a plan to ensure long-term sustainability. But Mayor Michael Passero said the city now has a solution to both.

At a news conference Thursday evening that was attended by city officials and members of the public, Passero announced he wants to bring in a private firm to plan, build and run a regional community recreation center at the Fort Trumbull peninsula on land the city took by eminent domain.

He envisions a regional facility that offers sought-after amenities, draws revenues from across a broad spectrum of users and doubles as headquarters for the city's recreational programs. But Passero and other city officials in attendance also stressed the center would act as a much-needed "conduit" to promote positive change within the New London community, as it would bring people together from all generations to recreate and support and learn from one another.

"A quality indoor recreational facility and community meeting place is something that has been sorely needed in our city for a long time," Passero said. "A critical component of an attractive urban lifestyle is a central place for the community to gather with accessible recreational amenities. The facility we envision will enhance community health and connectiveness while enhancing the city's attractiveness for economic investment."

The city has lined up the firm Brailsford & Dunlavey and its sister company CENTERS, which specializes in planning and management of recreational initiatives, to draw up the plans with community input. Passero said in a phone interview Thursday that the precise location for the center on the Fort Trumbull peninsula has not yet been worked out, but will be as plans are drawn up in coming months.

Passero added at Thursday's conference he hopes the center will be complete within two years, acknowledging such plans are "very, very ambitious."

"But we are going to get that done," he said. "We are going to hit the ground running in August."

The company comes with a portfolio of completed sports and recreation venues that includes a $15 million, 56,500-square-foot recreational facility at the University of New Haven and operated by CENTERS since 2009. The group also was chosen to create a master plan for Washington, D.C.'s RFK Memorial Stadium campus, part of a $489 million remake there. The first phase of that development, a $30 million multisport artificial turf facility, was completed in 2019.

Brailsford & Dunlavey CEO Paul Brailsford, who attended the virtual news conference, said, "This has been a phenomenal experience and we haven't really even gotten started yet. ...  We get most excited when people understand it's not just about the building. The building is really a conduit to other objectives that are much more important."

Passero and Felix Reyes, the director of the city's Office of Development and Planning, have met with the firm to talk over ideas and additionally with the Renaissance City Development Association, which markets the property, to ensure the idea has merit.

The first phase of the project, the signing of an estimated $140,000 contract with Brailsford & Dunlavey, will go to the City Council for consideration Aug. 3. An approval would allow a committee to come up with recommendations toward a plan to be developed by Brailsford & Dunlavey. That plan would include proposed membership fees, which Passero said are likely to be on a sliding scale based on income to ensure "nobody is unable to afford the facility."

"They will develop a business plan around the unique needs and desires of this community," Passero said.

One of the keys to funding what could be a $10 million to $20 million facility is finding regional partners, since Passero said the city can't afford to build a first-rate facility on its own. What form that would take is unclear, but Passero said it could include use of the pool by area high schools and colleges.

He said the city likely will need to borrow funds but there is also the opportunity to raise money through a capital campaign. He said he would hope to have a facility that not only can support operating costs but also the debt service incurred.

At the basic level, Passero said, he expects the facility to have a pool — maybe heated — as well as workout facilities, a gymnasium and basketball courts. Further details will need to be worked out, but Passero said there has been a desire in the community for a black box theater to encourage participation by the arts community.

Passero has long been an advocate of a community center and has attempted to court the YMCA to the city without success through the years. Community residents repeatedly have pushed for a facility for use by the city's youth, a call that was renewed recently with the loss of the Martin Center and movement of recreation programs held there.

City Councilor Curtis Goodwin, who explained by phone Thursday the significance the Martin Center had in his life while growing up, said the closing of the center has left a void in the community. "We don't have a central location where people can go for services. There were so many resources that existed there and they served the underrepresented population, which was our most critical population," he said. 

But he argued this proposed center would bring back that community support and more. The center "is going to mean everything to the kids around here. ... It's going to bring that Whaler pride back," he said.

The last best chance for a community center site came in 2016, when Passero negotiated a deal with former Edgerton School property owner Peter Levine for a $350,000 purchase of the 3.3-acre site on Cedar Grove Avenue. The council at the time balked at the lack of concrete plans and failed to act prior to a deadline. A housing complex has since been proposed for that site.

The recreational center has the potential to be the first new construction on grounds that caused a national stir over the use of eminent domain. The city seized portions of the land, including homes, through use of eminent domain, leading to the landmark 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Kelo v. City of New London. The ruling established that municipalities have a right to take private land by eminent domain for economic development.

The economic development has yet to come but is still being marketed — a hotel developer is the latest hopeful development on the property. Passero said that considering the tortured history, it might be fitting to have it as a place to benefit the entire community.

"To a certain extent, we're honoring the people who did sacrifice by losing their homes," he said.

Passero said he believes the development would meet terms of a municipal development plan in place on the property as a complementary use and a tool to help market other parcels.

g.smith@theday.com

m.biekert@theday.com

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