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'We Own this 90,000-Square-Foot Building. Why Not Use It?'

A petition is circulating throughout the town to keep Chalk Hill School open and revenue-generating programs are being compiled.

Unless they play in sports leagues, doing something fun for Monroe's youth often means getting a ride out of town. There is no movie theater or community center and one option, Skate Time, recently burned to the ground.

However, teenagers and their friends will soon be able to shoot pool and play games like basketball, air hockey and ping pong right in their hometown. Teen Nights will be held at every Friday in May. It's meant to benefit Project Warmth, but a group of parents hope to keep this and other programs going, while transforming the former school into a community center.

The town plans to close Chalk Hill in a "mothball" state by Labor Day if no long-term plan is in place ensuring enough revenue to break even with the costs of keeping it open.

The May Teen Nights will serve as a barometer as to what can be done in Chalk Hill, according to Kelly Plunkett, who said a Teen Night will then be held every other Friday for $15 per child.

"We're banking on that bringing in $45,000 a year," she said. "That doesn't count food."

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Plunkett, a member of the Board of Education, has been brainstorming revenue-generating ideas with Dawn Ryan and Jennifer Aguilar. Ryan is director of the Early Learning Center, a private daycare center that leases space at Chalk Hill.

Aside from the daycare center, the Parks & Recreation Department's offices and programs share the building. The Monroe Volunteer Emergency Medical Services also hosts training courses and hopes to move its headquarters into the old school one day.

First Selectman Steve Vavrek has until June 12 to present a plan for Chalk Hill's future to the Capital Infrastructure Facility Asset Planning Subcommittee (CIFAP).

Parks & Recreation Dir. Frank Cooper has said Chalk Hill needs a mixed use, likely including a high paying tenant and community programs. And Vavrek has shown the building to several potential suitors.

Meanwhile, Ryan, Plunkett and Aguilar estimate that volunteers have already put in hundreds of hours finding potential uses for Chalk Hill. The women have spoken to instructors and existing businesses who are willing to host classes and Ryan has visited community centers in surrounding towns to gather information.

The women said they have been in communication with the first selectman and when they spoke at the last Town Council meeting, several members asked if they could attend the group's next meeting.

"It's a grass roots effort," Plunkett said Friday. "Steve [Vavrek] reached out to some individuals to form a committee, but then recommended that the Town Council close Chalk Hill. We decided to get together and brainstorm anyway."

A petition is going around expressing support for keeping Chalk Hill open and the group plans to present it to the Town Council.

People Want to Do Things

Aguilar said, "We actually have people who want to do things at Chalk Hill, they just want to know how."

The group of parents envision programs for young and old, rentals for birthday parties, meetings for organizations such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and sleep-away camps for Boy Scouts on the ball field.

Food Jules wants to have cooking classes, Computer Works is interested in hosting an intro to Apple products course and Jensen Automotive wants to offer Automotive 101, teaching people basics such as changing a tire and checking their oil.

Ryan said, "These are all pre-existing businesses with track records of success, who want to bring things to Chalk Hill. They see it as a value."

Other possibilities include a P90X workout led by Greg Tuba, an interior design course, a puppy kindergarten and adult dog obedience classes. The EMS would also consider using the building as a regional training facility.

Plunkett said, "We've already been approached by the Farmer's Market to have it indoors in the winter."

The importance of a community center goes beyond simply providing things for children to do, according to Plunkett. As a the Board of Education and a former Youth Commission member, she has seen RYASAP survey results that show students in grades 6-12 tend to start making bad choices and getting involved with alcohol, drugs and violence.

"They don't feel connected to the community and are not connected to an adult," Plunkett said, adding Chalk Hill could provide alternatives for them in a safe environment.

Dollars and Sense

Aguilar and Plunkett often see money leave Monroe's borders as sports teams have to pay to practice elsewhere. For instance, the AYF's three Monroe cheer teams pay $400-$500 each to practice in Danbury, according to Plunkett.

She said the girls go to the Danbury facility because they have to use real cheer mats. If Chalk Hill remains open, Plunkett said the AYF could invest in its own mats and hold practices in the school gym.

"What it does is it brings the community together," Ryan said. "This is a familiar place."

Any courses held in Chalk Hill could produce 25 percent fees for Parks & Recreation and housing the alternative school there would also being in income.

According to the parent group's numbers, $230,000 a year would be needed for Chalk Hill to be revenue neutral. They estimate that $233,385 could be made in 2012-13, $240,635 in 2013-14 and $244,935 in 2014-15.

"Your tax dollars have already been spent to close, mothball and hibernate this building," Ryan said. "Wouldn't you want your dollar back and then some?"

Grants can be applied for and a fund-raising idea is also in the works.

"We thought about selling lockers here for a donation," Aguilar said. "You can decorate it."

Then Ryan said the locker can be used to keep one's things while using the facility.

Ryan said it cost an estimated $9.6 million for Newtown to build a community center and about $3.2 million for Easton to construct its own facility — and Monroe already has a building in Chalk Hill.

"We haven't marketed it and people are waiting with programs with baited-breath," Ryan said. "We own this 90,000-square-foot building. Why not develop it and use it?"

Sue May 02, 2012 at 01:43 PM
Jim, I believe you are referring to the Senior Center. It was built with monies that had stipulations attached. I believe that it had to remain strictly for seniors to use for 5-7 years and then could be opened up for other uses. I think the time period is almost up.
jim laguardia May 02, 2012 at 01:57 PM
right that is it does that generate revenue? how much is spent to keep that open every year?
Designated Hitter May 02, 2012 at 04:25 PM
@live_here - where is your $400,000 revenue number from? Admittedly, I might be missing something, but in a Patch article, 4/18/12, "Will a Plan for Chalk Hill's Future be Ready by June 12?", it indicates "The town would run a deficit of over $200,000 to keep the building open and a number of residents have made proposals to bridge the gap." It also states that "It had been estimated to cost in excess of $150,000 just to mothball Chalk Hill. It we mothball, the cost is over $150,000; if we keep it open, the cost is over $200,000; the net difference is a loss of over $50,000 - $50,000 being the incremental cost to keep it open vs. mothball. I don't know if better numbers have been published, so I'm asking you where you got the $400,000 from?
monroe taxpayer May 02, 2012 at 05:21 PM
Doesn't all money from the state and or federal government have stipulations attached? You can not use money attained for one purpose and then use it for another purpose? Wouldn't that be fraud? I just do not understand how we can have private commercial business in a building built using money meant for education. There is a big difference between a non profit school or senior center that serves the town residents and for profit commercial business. If you wish to generate revenue by charging each senior to use the senior center then you will have to do the same for every town function including the police fire ems and school use? A use tax for everything?
QWERTY May 02, 2012 at 06:10 PM
The senior center is one of only a few attractions for seniors. Chalk Hill is one of many schools in town. More than likely, residents aren't going to move out of town because Chalk HIll is closed...however, the same can't be said of seniors if the senior center were to close; it's more of an asset. Monroe's in a gray area were both closing it and keeping it open are viable options right now.

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