Officials intending to find uses for Chalk Hill School that will generate enough revenue for the town to justify keeping the building open have their work cut out for them. Just ask Monroe's new Parks & Recreation director Frank Cooper.
Cooper was faced with a similar situation while serving as deputy director of Hamden over the past 20 years. Redistricting led to the closing of New Hall Elementary School and the town filled the building with community and youth services, police union programs and municipal offices.
Then came another plan ...
"The town wanted to sell the building and get it back on the tax rolls," Cooper recalled. "They moved everybody out to make it more attractive to suitors, so they could see how the space could be used. It didn't work."
Nobody ended up buying the building and the town offices and programs never moved back in. Cooper said the facility fell into disrepair.
"It's really in bad shape," He said. "It's still standing, but now it's an eyesore. That's not something you want to see happen here and I think Monroe's smarter than that. I can tell you what not to do and that is a classic example."
'I don't think it's impossible at all'
Chalk Hill opened as Monroe's first middle school in 1968 and had been used for sixth grade when the Board of Education decided to close it as a school and turn the building over to the town two years ago.
The building currently houses the Monroe Early Learning Center, Monroe Parks & Recreation Department offices and programs, and training classes for Monroe Emergency Medical Services.
The Capital Infrastructure Facility Asset Planning Sub-Committee (CIFAP) is overseeing planning for Chalk Hill's future. Many residents want the building to be used as a community center, but if nothing can be done to at least break even with revenue, the building will be "mothballed," closed with minimal maintenance until there is a viable plan.
First Selectman Steve Vavrek has been talking to potential tenants.
"I think he's going in the right direction with what he's trying to accomplish here," Cooper said.
Ideally, Cooper said Chalk Hill "would be great as a community center. It's set up for that purpose very well. It could flourish in that regard. I think the town would benefit. But economically, I don't think it can sustain itself.
"How many classes could you have? You have such a small town like this. I don't think we have the mass to make it happen strictly with user fees. Ideally, we'd have a heavy rent payer in here and use the rest of the building for programs."
Then Cooper said there are local zoning issues to consider: "What can be allowed. What people can accept. Something low impact. Not like a steel mill. Not something intensive or intrusive at all."
"I don't think it's impossible, but realistically I know there are a lot of towns in the same situation," he said. "I think we're going to have to be creative in how we approach it."
Chalk Hill currently has a special exception permit for a school in a residential zone. The Planning & Zoning Commission will review a plan to be submitted by Vavrek and reviewed by CIFAP to determine what kinds of uses can be permitted. There will also be a public hearing (the date has yet to be determined).
18 Days On the Job
Cooper and Deb, his wife of 17 years, live in Seymour. He earned his bachelor's degree to become a history teacher from Middlebury College in Vermont and earned his Master's degree in Recreation Planning and Management from Southern Connecticut State University.
Cooper had been an athlete growing up. In college he played on the football and baseball teams as a running back and a third baseman. His favorite professional teams are the New York Yankees and the New York Jets.
A re-organization of Hamden's Parks & Recreation Department is what spurred Cooper's decision to apply for Monroe's director opening.
In his last two years in Hamden, the Parks & Recreation Department was broken up. Maintenance of parks and facilities become a separate division within the Public Works Department and Cooper was in charge. But he believes separating maintenance from programing can cause problems when both sides are not on the same page.
"I came from the old way, so I could anticipate the needs of recreation," he said, though he still disagreed with separating the functions.
Cooper is happy to be in Monroe now. One of the biggest differences between Monroe and Hamden is the size of the communities, according to Cooper, who noted how Monroe has about 19,000 people as opposed to the some 60,000 in Hamden.
"Monroe has Wolfe Park and Great Hollow Lake, which is one major park with athletic fields, the lake and hiking trails. It was planned well," Cooper said.
By contrast, Hamden is broken up into six villages, each with its own parks and ball fields — 22 in all, according to Cooper. "Everything we did was out of the back of a truck or a trailer," he said.
In Monroe, Cooper said he can spend more time working in his office, adding he likes the fact that he can focus on one major park.
"The challenge I see at Wolfe Park is financing the maintenance there," he said. "What the park needs verses what the budget allows. That's the challenge I see at this point."
Monroe spent substantially more than what was budgeted for Parks & Recreation over the past two or three years, yet the budget amount remained flat, according to Cooper.
"I'm looking at ways to reduce some of the expenses in the accounts by July," he said. "You try to stay in your budget the best you can and make the appropriate adjustments."
'The gem of the town'
CIFAP is asking town department heads to come up with a list of all of their capital needs and Cooper expects to add more needed projects to what's already been ranked. He toured the town's park and facilities and made some notes.
Among his observations, the beach at Great Hollow Lake needs more sand, Wolfe Park's tennis courts and the fence that surrounds it is in bad shape, and the stone walls at the park are in disrepair.
One day, Cooper saw a mother at Wolfe Park, who was talking on her cell phone, while holding her baby with another child in tow. He felt uneasy when, instead of walking around the stone wall on her way to the concert area, the woman walked over the wall.
"They need to be fixed," he said.
Though Cooper has noticed some things he wants to improve, he's still settling into his new position.
"You have to let things happen and get a feel of what's going on before making any changes of significance," he said. "I'm going to try to set a course for this department: What needs are going to be and try to move Wolfe Park forward. It's clearly the gem of the town."