Gardens, dancing and Zumba: New London residents create their community center wish list
New London ― After 30 years of talk, the city is well on its way to opening a new community center.
And while the facility is expected to come with all the bells and whistles a $40 million price tag could be expected to offer, former Recreation Department Director Tommie Major wants to keep the project in perspective.
“A building doesn’t make a recreation department,” he said on Friday. “It will definitely be an asset, but a community doesn’t have to have a community center.”
Despite the opening of the center still more than a year away, city residents and groups are already chiming in on what programs and amenities they want to see offered at the facility.
The city’s Recreation Department recently completed a needs assessment for the center using a $90,000 grant from the National Recreation and Park Association. The survey was aimed at highlighting programming that meets the social, cultural, economic, emotional, physical, environmental and intellectual needs of its users, Recreation Director Josh Posey said.
“We know we can’t have all the programming people requested, but we can start the process of implementing some of them now with the goal of having them ready when the doors open,” he said. “While we know the layout we’ll have, we don’t yet know how exactly we’ll use the specific spaces.”
Consolidating a patchwork of programming
For decades, the recreation department worked with school and community officials to conduct programming at a variety of sites, including the former Richard R. Martin Center on Broad Street.
The Martin Center, owned by the city until 2020, had been an unofficial recreation center of sorts for the city with a gymnasium, auditorium and offices that housed the Recreation Department. Programs had been in decline in recent years and the city abandoned its offices at the building in 2019 due to deteriorating conditions.
Major said the city’s relationship to recreation is somewhat oxymoronic.
“We’re in a city surrounded by water, but there’s no indoor pool ― we had a swimming program we had to hold at Avery Point,” he said, referring to the University of Connecticut campus in Groton. “We’re a community with a long history of athletics, but lack the facilities we need to support that. We have an education system that works to motivate students, but the high school has one gym.”
The new center is expected to fill some of those needs gaps. The facility will include a community lounge, classroom space for early childhood programming, a two-court gymnasium, eight-lane pool, track area and workout and game rooms.
But the specific types of programming to be offered are still up in the air, though recreation officials hope the recently completed wellness study will provide some direction.
Zumba, poetry and swimming
The most requested center programming revolving around physical fitness included swim lessons, yoga, basketball, Zumba classes, water aerobics and strength and conditioning, along with walking, biking and open swim programming.
Board games, book clubs, arts and craft, billiards and dances were listed as social wellness program wants, as were movie nights, poetry clubs and card games. Under the educational enrichment umbrella, professional skills training, financial literacy, language and career-building options were forwarded for consideration.
Other programming mentioned included pottery, drawing and cake decorating classes.
A substantial segment of the surveys focused on nutrition and food resource access. Participants said they wanted free community gardens, fruit trees and farmers’ markets at the site. More than half the respondents said they wanted public snack beds added to the center’s property.
Posey said the property doesn’t lend itself to most of the food-based suggestions, though there will likely be grant money left over for snack bed construction.
“We anticipate the center’s programming will evolve over time,” Posey said. “We’ll add, remove or modify activities as we go along. And this survey gives us a list of new possibilities to cycle through.”
The survey results will be discussed with the public at 6 p.m. Tuesday and 7 p.m. Thursday at the Early Childhood Center at BP Learned Mission, 40 Shaw St.
The challenge of non-drivers getting to and from the new community center was also raised during the survey with one recommendation calling for partnering with the school system to ferry youngsters to the center after classes end.
What about seniors?
Inside the New London Senior Center’s sewing room on Thursday, Cheryl Lawrence and Marilyn DeShields bent over swatches of fabric near idling sewing machines.
Lawrence said not consolidating the senior center into the community center represented a missed opportunity, especially since several types programming proposed for the new facility already exist at the Brainard Street center.
She said the new center must put the same premium on senior activities as those aimed at younger visitors.
“For instance, senior swim lessons and specific open pool time in the morning and evenings so people can be bused there from the senior center and also drive there at night if they still work,” she said.
DeShields, who’d begun hearing rumblings of an incoming recreation center a few years ago, called the idea a “great” one – with caveats.
“Give us the opportunity to swim or walk around the perimeter without the youngsters around,” she said. “And have trainers there to help us with exercises and strengthening work. We should not be forgotten.”
Reaching out to the overlooked
More than 20 organizations, including churches, sports associations, health agencies and education centers, hosted in-house focus group meetings from December 2022 to January that sought to ensure historically disenfranchised populations ― people of color, low-income, disabled and LGBTQ+ demographics ― had a voice in their community center’s offerings.
The largest number of focus group’s 388 participants – 34% ― were white, with Hispanic residents making up the second-highest contingent with 33% participating. Just more than 20% of the focus group were Black residents.
Eighty-two participants identified as having a physical, ambulatory or cognitive disability.
The average age of focus group participants was 37, though that figure was based on median household age data filled out by parents. Project Coordinator Andria Fraser said several of the informational-gathering groups consisted of younger residents, including those hosted by the New London Board of Education and the Drop-In Community Center.
“For teens and younger residents, they wanted to see theater and art programming offered at the center, while their parents were looking for homework help,” she said.
Posey said he was pleasantly surprised to see the demographics of the focus group participants dovetail so closely with a 2020 decennial census of the city’s population.
“It’s nice to see that we’re hitting those targets,” he said.
While the city’s recreation department is expected to run some programming at the site, general oversight and operation of the facility will be the responsibility of a private company the city will hire. The hiring process is expected to begin by the end of this year.
The facility is expected to cost $2 million a year to run with revenue generated by memberships, rental fees and sponsorships.
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