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New London council to vote on $30 million community recreation center at Fort Trumbull

New London — Mayor Michael Passero said the establishment of a community recreational center in the city could be transformational, on the scale of the creation of Ocean Beach Park in 1939.

With new information in hand that depicts a project that is not only feasible but financially sustainable, the City Council on Monday is poised for a vote on the $30 million cost to build the center with 265 parking spaces at Fort Trumbull.

The 62,000-square foot facility would span two long-vacant parcels at Fort Trumbull and 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.

A new report from the firm hired by the city to create a plan for the center, Brailsford & Dunlavey, also has reiterated its conclusion that Fort Trumbull is the preferred location of the center. Other sites explored included places like Bates Woods, the former Edgerton School property off Colman Street and some downtown locations, some of which residents have said offer better accessibility.

The analysis by Brailsford & Dunlavey, however, shows Fort Trumbull, which is owned by the city, is not only the cheapest option but the easiest to develop because of existing infrastructure and the minimal site work needed.

If all approvals fall into place as projected, the project could be completed by the end of 2023 or in early 2024.

“When we went into this we didn’t know if it would be feasible,” Passero, a longtime advocate of a community center, said of the study. “So it’s great news to find out that ‘yes’ we can do it. We have the proof that we can build a sustainable facility.”

One of the major challenges for the city was building a project that can be maintained.

“We cannot let it start deteriorating on day one,” said Felix Reyes, director of the city’s Office of Development and Planning. “Creating a sustainable model that is self-sufficient, that’s regionally attractive, that can generate revenue and be a central hub for our community — we’ve answered that.”

One of the city’s main priorities in pitching the project was the ability to keep membership costs within reach of city residents. The outcome of that request was a regional facility with estimated average membership fees of $6 per day, $30 per month and $300 per year, below the market rates of $8 per day, $43 a month and $430 per year at similar facilities across the region, said Brailsford & Dunlavey representative Andrew Lieber.

Those rates are subject to refinement but lower-income residents will be able to pay a reduced rate on a sliding scale based on income level. Projections show less than half of New London residents would pay full rates.

Reyes called the recreation center a “keystone” project, one that he expects will complement nearby housing developments that are planned or under construction. He expects it also will reinvigorate interest in development at Fort Trumbull, a site that was cleared for development and at the center of the U.S. Supreme Court case Kelo v. New London, an unsuccessful fight against eminent domain and the taking of private land for economic development purposes.

“The impact of this project is going to be vast,” Reyes said.

Lieber, during an interview on Thursday, said the projections show the center will capture enough revenue through membership and rental fees to cover the $2.2 million in projected yearly operational costs by the fourth year in operation.

Projections show that the city will gain projected yearly revenue of $200,000 after the fourth year, money the city has earmarked for use in a capital expense fund for upkeep of the facility.

Other future revenues could come from corporate sponsors and fundraising efforts and help defray the debt incurred by the city to fund the project and help subsidize programs for low- and moderate-income residents.

Finance Director David McBride said the city will pay an average of $2.1 million per year over the course of 20 years to pay for the project. The impact on taxpayers, he said, will be minimal when taking into consideration the expected continued growth of the city’s grand list and conservative estimates on new taxes being generated by development projects in the pipeline.

In a breakdown to be presented to councilors on Monday, McBride will share the projected mill rate change.

“It’s really important to stabilize taxes, which we’ve done for five years,” Passero said. “In fact, we’ve walked the mill rate back. We wouldn’t be recommending this if we thought that was jeopardized in any way.”

“The way I see it, all of the work we’ve put in building our economic base, the grand list, the work we have in the pipeline ... we’re taking a portion of all of that growth to invest in ourselves to achieve some of these goals to benefit the quality of life in the city, to address health disparities, to just connect people.”

Recreation Director Tommie Major said the recreation center is something that will not only benefit his department and all of the programs it provides to the community but is something that is missing from the city.

The closest thing the city has had to a community center in recent memory was the Richard R. Martin Center on Broad Street, the former headquarters of the Recreation Department. With conditions there deteriorating and costs of repairs out of the city’s reach, the City Council approved the sale of the building last year. It’s expected to be developed into a 75-unit residential complex for individuals over the age of 55.

“It’s time to get the job done,” Major said. “Here we are, a city two-thirds surrounded by water and we do not have an indoor pool.”

The City Council will discuss the project finances at the 5:30 p.m. Finance Committee meeting Monday and take up the $30 million bond request at its regular 7 p.m. meeting. The council also is taking up votes on bonding $1.1 million to replace the air handling units at Jennings School and a $2.3 million bonding request for the city’s yearly infrastructure projects.

g.smith@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version corrects the spelling of the first name of city Recreation Director Tommie Major.

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