John Kimball envisions the opening of the Monroe Educational Recreation Center at Chalk Hill, a place with a daycare center to watch children while their parents participate in classes in fitness, art and other topics — a building with a movie theater where people can bump into their neighbors, giving them that same sense of community felt at Edmond Town Hall in Newtown.
Kimball, a town developer who owns The Kimball Group, is proposing a public/private partnership in which he would lease the Chalk Hill School building from the town to operate it as a community center.
"We're assuming this will be a successful project for the town," Kimball said. "We felt that a community center is a need for the town."
It will take a while to fill the building to capacity, but the idea would be for it to eventually be self-sustaining, according to Kimball.
He has been working with First Selectman Steve Vavrek, and presented the proposal with Kevin Solli of The Kimball Group at the Capital Infrastructure Facility Asset Planning Sub-Committee (CIFAP) meeting held at Monroe Town Hall Tuesday night.
CIFAP is a subcommittee of the Planning & Zoning Commission. It is charged with gathering information on all potential options for Chalk Hill, which has not been used as a school since the Board of Education turned it over to the town last year.
The P&Z will host a public hearing on all potential options that come forward on July 16. Richard Zini, chairman of both the P&Z Commission and CIFAP, said the meeting place has yet to be decided.
While looking for a tenant for Chalk Hill, Vavrek and Parks & Recreation Dir. Frank Cooper toured the building with several interested suitors, including the YMCA, Champion Indoor Soccer, and Bridgeport and Danbury hospitals. But Cooper said all were interested in a tenant/landlord relationship in which the town would have to spend money to make improvements to the building. Then The Kimball Group pitched its proposal.
"Once you hear this plan, I think you'll agree this is the best thing to do for the town," Vavrek said at the CIFAP meeting.
Kimball wants to enter into a five-year lease agreement with the town in which Monroe would donate $150,000 — which is already in its budget to mothball the building — to the community center annually and The Kimball Group would pay for anything over and above that amount.
Solli said Kimball Group would hire a staff member to provide programs to expand upon existing Parks & Recreation programs. Parks & Rec. would stay in the building, along with the Monroe Early Learning Center and the Monroe Volunteer Emergency Medical Service, which has training classes there.
EMS wants to have sleep rooms for volunteers on overnight shifts there and hopes to eventually have garages for its ambulances. The organization is currently housed in the Jockey Hollow Firehouse.
David York, director of Monroe Emergency Management, told CIFAP that the local Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) is interested in training at Chalk Hill with the EMS.
Solli said the community center would be interested in hosting events such as Teen Nights — which have been successful at Chalk Hill, courses on a variety of topics, and the flexibility to bring in new tenants.
Kimball said there would be a cost savings to the town from consolidating its recreation programs into one building. Parks & Recreation programs would have a building use fee which would be used to offset costs of operating the building.
Any uses would require a special exception permit from Planning & Zoning.
The Kimball Group would maintain the building and provide custodial services. And the town would receive updates on the upkeep of the building to "protect its asset".
Town Council Chairwoman Enid Lipeles asked what would happen if the student population suddenly rose and the town needed Chalk Hill back as a school. Kimball said a recapture clause could be written into the contract, adding he would want 30 months to be able to relocate the center and move out of the building.
Board of Finance Chairman Mark Reed asked about estimates on what it would cost to bring Chalk Hill back up to code as a school and it ranged from over $3 million to about $18 million. Board of Education member Mark Antinozzi said cost estimates did not include asbestos abatement.
"The point being that reuse as a school is not an option," Reed said of his reason for asking for the cost estimates.
Police Chief John Salvatore said anything done with the building should take the fact that it shares a campus with two schools into account for safety reasons.
Town Councilman Tony Unger asked if all vendors could have an opportunity to pitch a proposal for the building. Zini said the process has been open for 60 days and there is a hope that anyone with a proposal will come forward during the public process.
"I'm not trying to present this as the only option," Kimball said. "If someone has a better one, please come forward. I think this is a good proposal."
Where Are the Numbers?
Town Councilman Nick Kapoor urged action on any short-term planning that needs to be done, so the Monroe Early Learning Center and EMS know if they can stay in the building. He said deadlines are near.
On Tuesday, the first selectman was scheduled to present financial numbers and potential uses for Chalk Hill at CIFAP's meeting. Despite his introducing Kimball's proposal, Vavrek received criticism for not having the up-to-date financial numbers CIFAP had requested two months ago.
Zini said, "The First Selectman's Office has not provided the numbers to the Planning Commission for the second time. I guess Mr. Vavrek, your office is using numbers of 2008 and 2010 studies."
Of the numbers in the studies, Vavrek said, "That's the truth. That's why I'm using it."
Town Councilman Frank Lieto asked Kimball, should there be widespread support for his plan and the approval process move along smoothly, how long it would take for him to take over the building. Kimball said it could be nine to 12 months, or possibly sooner.
Lieto's point was that Chalk Hill would not have the tenant it needs to stay open before the deadline to "mothball" the building — which is after Labor Day. With the winter coming and the Parks & Recreation Department and a number of its programs having to be moved, Lieto asked the first selectman what his short term plan is.
If the building has to be mothballed, Vavrek said the department heads would have to come together to decide what to do about Parks & Recreation.
"So the short term plan is a haphazard relocation?" Lieto asked.
Vavrek said the $150,000 plan to mothball has always been in place.
Reed said the Board of Finance is meeting next Wednesday, its last meeting before the P&Z Commission meeting. "Mr. Vavrek, can you have the numbers then?" he asked.
Vavrek said, "My department heads are here, so you will have the numbers."
Board of Education member Kelly Plunkett, who was part of a parent group trying to keep Chalk Hill open, pointed out that there has been no analysis over what revenue could be lost if the town closes Chalk Hill. She said that should also be considered.