Close to 40 children attended the first Teen Night at Chalk Hill School on Friday, playing pool and basketball, and taking part in a scavenger hunt — with most making colorful stripes in their hair with chalk.
"They had so much fun," said Kelly Plunkett, one of the organizers.
Fellow organizer Jennifer Aguilar received an email from one mother telling her that her daughter came home saying "it was way better than the YMCA’s teen night," according to Plunkett.
"We got calls texts and emails from parents — all saying their kids had so much fun and thanking us for putting it together," she said. "One's daughter had three texts from friends the next morning saying, 'You have to go next week.'"
Though it was a benefit for Project Warmth, a group of parents hope this and similar community programs can raise the type of revenue to justify keeping the 43-year-old building open.
Plunkett, Aguilar and a group of volunteers garnered 371 signatures to an online petition asking people if they want to keep Chalk Hill open. But most agree that in order to generate enough revenue to break even with expenses as town officials demand, a major tenant must be part of the solution.
First Selectman Steve Vavrek has until June 12 to present a financial plan to the Capital Infrastructure Facility Asset Planning Subcommittee (CIFAP).
"It's going okay," Vavrek said last week. "Everyone is concerned over what the building will be. If the building is going to cost us 'X' more money to do something, I think people would agree it would not be a good idea."
The first selectman said there are some vacant commercial spaces in town and that he will not support putting businesses in Chalk Hill at the expense of those places, which he called "more of a priority."
"Do we need a community center?" Vavrek asked. "I would love to have a community center. I would love to have something like Edmond Town Hall. It's all about the finances."
Vavrek has shown Chalk Hill to several potential suitors, including the YMCA and Bridgeport and Danbury hospitals.
"I'm fairly confident we can get some numbers in," he said of the upcoming CIFAP meeting. "I want to get the community involved. I commend the volunteers, but we have to go through the process. Things have to be done the right way."
The first selectman was alluding to the fact that any uses other than what Chalk Hill is zoned for — residential/farming — will need approval from the Planning & Zoning Commission.
Vavrek said he plans to reach out to Ridgefield First Selectman Rudy Marconi, whose town had transformed its former high school into a town use.
"As a town, we're trying to assure the citizens if the building is open, it will be the right move for the taxpayers," Vavrek said.
Plunkett, Aguilar and Dawn Ryan, owner of the Monroe Early Learning Center, a private daycare already housed in Chalk Hill, held a group meeting in the auditorium of the old school last Wednesday night.
They went over a revised spreadsheet of projected revenue from programs by businesses who have already expressed interest. The women believe a minimum of $230,000 a year must be generated and estimate uses to bring in $229,252 in 2012-13, $263,835 in 2013-14 and $268,135 in 2014-15.
Parks & Recreation Dir. Frank Cooper, whose department offices are in Chalk Hill, also attended the meeting, along with several townspeople including Kim Henderson of Studio on the Move and Frank Bent (who had served as interim Parks & Recreation director).
Town officials in attendance included Council Chairwoman Enid Lipeles, Council Vice Chairwoman Debra Heim, Councilwoman Debra Dutches, Councilwoman Dee Dee Martin, Councilman Nick Kapoor, Board of Finance member Ted Quinlan, Planning & Zoning Vice Chairman Pat O'Hara and EMS Commission Chairman Dennis Condon.
"As a mom, I really don't want this building to go anywhere," said Henderson, who hopes to hold classes at Chalk Hill.
Plunkett discussed the strategy of approaching established businesses in town about holding workshops at the former school. But Cooper said there may be problems using names on the spreadsheet, should other businesses feel they were left out.
Plunkett said the group of volunteers were using names to show credibility to members of the Town Council and Board of Finance. Aguilar added, "We were told by the Town Council they want to see names behind the numbers."
"I don't think our goal should be to tell Mr. Vavrek or Mr. Cooper what should be there," Aguilar added. "We just want to bring forth that it can be done. There are people in town who want to come forward."
Some at the meeting expressed frustration over the process not being clear enough, and Martin suggested having a tri-board meeting with the Town Council, Board of Finance and Planning & Zoning Commission.
Need for a Business Plan
When talking about the spreadsheet of uses for Chalk Hill, Condon said, "Basically, this is more of a wish list. A concept list. It hasn't been vetted by Planning & Zoning or legal."
Cooper said a business plan must include goals.
"I asked the first selectman, 'How will you come up with a business plan when you don't know what you want yet?'" Cooper said.
Quinlan said the only goal is to be "revenue neutral". He offered to assist the volunteers in drafting a business plan.
When Vavrek had spoken to the Board of Finance about Chalk Hill, Quinlan said, "The first selectman said this thing could be great. We said, 'We need a plan.' We still don't have a plan."
Lipeles said Vavrek is under pressure from both sides on the Chalk Hill issue. "There are people who are against it in town," she said of those who want to "mothball" the school to save money.
Nevertheless, she said the first selectman must be the one to present a plan "and the Board of Finance will make the decision."