Group outlines community center plan3/19/09

Funding uncertain for multi-million dollar building

March 19, 2009

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

Imagine a town-owned facility where residents could go for a swim, attend a class or see a play. It would provide a venue for individuals to socialize and groups to meet, fostering a sense of civic togetherness sometimes missing in suburban Williston.


    Courtesy image
The above blueprint shows a possible floor plan for a Williston community center. Sharon Gutwin, leader of a group studying a long-discussed community center, presented the plan to the Selectboard last week.  

That was the vision detailed during last week’s Selectboard meeting by Sharon Gutwin, leader of a group studying a long-discussed community center. She gave a PowerPoint presentation and fielded questions from the board.

As outlined in a conceptual plan presented by Gutwin, the facility would include 13,500 square feet of interior space. It would feature a pair of pools, gym and classroom space and a meeting room accommodating 250 people.

The facility would cost an estimated $2 million to $3 million, not including land acquisition and site development. Annual costs for maintenance, utilities and insurance would run from $70,000 to $100,000.

Board members expressed muted support for the plan outlined by Gutwin.

“I think this would be a great thing to do,” Judy Sassorossi said. “I’m just a little puzzled … what steps can we take to lay the groundwork?”

Jeff Fehrs worried that the plan, with its fitness facility, would compete with existing health clubs.

“I’d be hesitant to have the town seen as stepping on the toes of the private sector,” he said.

Gutwin said the community center would attract people intimidated by private clubs, so it would complement rather than compete with businesses like Sports & Fitness Edge.

The group’s proposal marks the latest chapter in a long-running discussion of a community center in Williston. There appears to be widespread support for such a facility, but questions about funding and location remain.

A task force comprised of town officials and citizens compiled a report on the issue in 2007. After polling voters, holding a public hearing and conducting interviews, the task force found widespread support for a community center.

But paying for it would be problematic, the report concluded, saying residents are unlikely to support a property tax hike to build a multi-million dollar facility and pay for its staffing and upkeep.

That of course was before the current economic crisis set in. Selectboard Chairman Terry Macaig said in an interview the downturn may keep the community center on the shelf for now.

“I think there’s a need for it,” he said. “But the urgency at this point is numbed by the economic situation in the state and the town.”

Gutwin said in an interview that she and the other group members understand public money is tight these days. She thinks that donations or grants could at least provide seed money to construct the facility. The group’s conceptual plan calls for renting space to tenants to defray operating costs.

“What I know is there is no town money,” Gutwin said. “I’m just trying to be sensitive to the economic climate we are in. I don’t want to pressure the town to provide funding. What we’re really looking for is for people to donate money or their time to write grants.”

Once the financial ball is rolling, Gutwin said, “then it would be more appropriate” to ask for town funding.

Gutwin, owner of the RehabGym in Williston, is also exploring the chances of tapping into federal stimulus money. She said her research indicates that community centers are eligible to receive the funding.

The community center group grew out of WING, or Williston Into the Next Generation, a citizen initiative that is taking a multi-faceted look at how the town can become a more complete and cohesive community.

Group member Nancy Stone said the group met once or twice a month starting last summer and ending around the holidays.

Stone, a longtime art teacher who has lived in Williston since 1971, said a community center could provide instructional space that she and others could use for classes. But beyond that, she said she and others yearn for a central place where they can make community connections.

“As Williston kept growing and growing, I had (at one time) thought it’s not my town anymore,” Stone said. Having instructional space “is one part of it, but the other is I just want to have a sense of community.”

The Selectboard instructed Gut-win to work with Town Manager Rick McGuire to further explore funding sources and identify a location. Gutwin said the group concluded it should be located near Taft Corners.

Despite the uncertain prospects, Gutwin was upbeat about the prospects for a community center.

“I’m excited,” she said. “I think there’s a good chance for it, with or without the stimulus money, I believe there’s a passion for this to happen.”