August 20, 2014

Report says to hold off on community center

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Taxpayers seen as unlikely to approve funding

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Residents want a community center but won’t support a tax hike – at least not in the near future – to pay for it.

So concludes a new report that considers the need for a much-discussed facility that could serve as a central gathering place for teens and seniors and host community functions.

An eight-member task force compiled the report, gathering information from a variety of sources over the past year. The group included representatives from the Selectboard, Planning Commission and Recreation Committee as well as town staff and three community members.

After polling voters, holding a public hearing and interviewing residents, the task force learned that Willistonians liked the idea of having a community center.

But it also found out that there was little support for higher taxes to fund a facility that could cost millions to construct and thousands more in annual operating costs. Instead, the task force thought Williston could get by with existing public spaces for the time being.

“I think the committee believed that one is needed in the community eventually,” said Town Manager Rick McGuire, who served on the task force. “Just not yet.”

The community center envisioned by the task force would accommodate both seniors and teens and would include shared meeting rooms, storage, a kitchen and space reserved for each group. To serve those needs it would contain 3,000 to 6,000 square feet.

The report estimated the facility would cost $1.5 million to $2 million to build based on today’s construction costs. The task force acknowledged that a more accurate estimate would depend on many variables yet to be determined.

A voter-approved bond could fund the facility. Susan Lamb, Williston’s finance director, said the town is currently repaying slightly more than $8 million in bond debt, most of it for the new fire and police stations. Under state law, municipalities can carry debt equal to 1 percent of its grand list. In Williston’s case, Lamb said, that debt ceiling equates to about $12 million.

But it is doubtful that voters would approve more bond debt, the report said. The task force based its conclusion on previous votes rejecting the school budget and an ambulance service as well as comments from residents.

“The task force was unanimous in feeling that the capital construction costs for a community center, if it were built now or in the near future, should not come from taxes,” the report said.

Instead, the task force recommended a fund-raising campaign to pay for part or all of the construction. The report suggests that the community might be more receptive to paying for the facility in about five years, particularly if it was created by expanding Dorothy Alling Library or Allen Brook School or if it was partially funded from private sources.

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION

The task force was initially divided on the ideal location for a community center. The group eventually decided that the village would be the best site because of its proximity to the town’s two schools as well as other services such as the library.

In fact, one of the possibilities discussed by the task force was a library expansion large enough to accommodate a community center. Task force member David Yandell said that would dovetail nicely with the many programs already offered by the library and allow the use of existing library staff to help operate the community center.

Other locations discussed were the Williston Armory and Allen Brook School. The school location also could be built as part of an expansion, a long-discussed idea with an uncertain future given stagnant enrollment.

The task force discovered that community groups were making do with public spaces scattered around Williston. Those spaces include room at the police and fire stations, Town Hall, Allen Brook and Williston Central schools, the Vermont National Guard Armory and the library.

But the report acknowledges that many of those spaces are less than ideal or have limited availability. They are often shared with multiple groups and include no storage.

Recreation Director Kevin Finnegan said that poses a problem for ongoing activities. For example, he said a monthly teen coffeehouse once held in the basement of the Old Brick Church was popular. But organizers had to spend hours setting up before each session, then carting away gear when the event ended.

Still, the report said groups can find space. It noted that the town is developing an online system that should help community groups find and reserve space.

“There didn’t appear to be a desperate need for a serve-all community center at this time,” said task force member Carroll Lawes.

DOWN, NOT OUT

Though the report said the town can wait for a community center, it noted that demographic trends will force the town to act in the next several years. The state’s aging population will mean more seniors, who will drive demand for additional space.

“The task force concluded that there is not a pressing need at the present time, but within 5-10 years the town will need to respond – particularly to the needs of senior citizens,” the report said.

The report was presented to the Selectboard on Monday night. McGuire said the board had many questions and wondered what the task force thought the town should do next.

Exploring opportunities for private funding, locating a site, obtaining permits and constructing a building will take years, Yandell said. That means the town should get going immediately.

“We don’t need it right now, but we might need it in the future,” he said. “So it’s important for us to start planning right now.”

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