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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?"

Gerald M. Gaynor May 01, 2012 at 10:37 AM
We have a relatively new structure complete with recreational facilities, showers, lavatories and food service capabilities. At some point down the road we will have some group pushing for the construction of a community center and we will head into our well documented confrontation mode. Why not try something new? Let's utilize facilities that we have already spent millions of taxpayer dollars on rather than paying to not use and missing out on the opportunity to actually generate some income from them.
Jennifer Aguilar May 01, 2012 at 11:30 AM
if you want to sign the petition to be brought to a meeting with town officials: http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/keep-chalk-hill-openkeepchalkhillopen/signatures
live_here May 01, 2012 at 01:51 PM
The Town fiscal records show that the building costs the taxpayers around $400,000 plus to operate in its current state at a loss! Many would like to know where the additional monies are coming from to offset clearly at least the additional $200,000 to make the building "revenue neutral", even if all these "community center" programs actually brought in $230,000 as the article suggests. Where is this big tenant or tenants? Also interesting that all these "services" are not education or "children" related. Mahy would bring adult and local traffic into a school campus area. And what about the rest of the business owners who pay market rates to operate a business to survive? Are taxpayers now going to subsidize for-profit business under the guise of a "community center" offering low or no rents in a Town building? If anyone is going to "rent" in a Town ow ned building, it should be at market rates and open to competitive tenants. Recreation programs can not pay the operating costs, repair costs, upgrades, and long-term maintenance, the taxpayers will be!
Alex May 01, 2012 at 04:40 PM
"We're banking on that bringing in $45,000 a year," she said. "That doesn't count food." That's some fuzzy math you got there... Here's why: 45,000 / 26 (weeks) = $1,731 per event for an every other Friday plan. At $15 dollars a head, each event would need AT LEAST 116 students to bring in that amount, 16 more than the limit placed on by the event planners, according to an article last month. Not only is it a pipe dream to think you'll get max capacity at every event, $15 per teen is actually quite high for what you're offering, and surely there are costs to host the event on top of that, so only a fraction of that would go into the coffers to help make the building revenue neutral. Sorry to be the Debby downer but, 45K is a dishonest estimate, it should be "At Best, we could bring in 45K, but..."
QWERTY May 01, 2012 at 07:52 PM
What's that I smell....a Dave & Busters?!
Susan Murray May 01, 2012 at 08:19 PM
I really think that keeping Chalk Hill open and operational at what ever cost is important to the town and the whole community. The revenue potential is huge. Basically by mothballing the building, it potentially becomes derelict and subject to a multitude of evils including vandalism. Not to mention how bad it makes this town look. We have enough empty buildings rotting away as Trumbull continues to underbid Monroe's high rents and giving them tax relief programs for every new business looking for a new home. We have a serious problem with stonewalling everything in this town. Much to our demise, as other surrounding towns are thriving. So what if business set up shop in there? If the rents weren't so high, this wouldn't be a discussion at all! And it could be that it is a satellite situation for existing business in this town who want to have a second venue to promote their main place of business. Farmer's markets, small business expos, an exercise center, an art center, coffee shop, kinder care, teen nights, a place for classes and continuing ed programs. Theater productions, small concerts and $2.00 movie nights could be held in the auditorium. Not to mention a meeting place for hiking, biking, civic, hobbyists, boy and girl scouts groups...the list goes on! How can this not be a good thing for the whole town! If we are creative and for once think outside the box, Chalk Hill could be a huge attraction to Monroe not a distraction!
QWERTY May 01, 2012 at 08:52 PM
I beg to differ...business is thriving in Trumbull and Shelton because they have better access and are more densely residential. I could be wrong, but it's not optimal to setup a corporate park setting in the middle of Monroe where the nearest highway is 10 minutes away. The biggest mistake this town (or is it state) ever made was not extending 25 or 111 as highway type roadways.
live_here May 01, 2012 at 09:48 PM
Well then Susan, get your checkbook out at every budget season, as this WILL continue to cost the Town of Monroe taxpayers more money, unless a real paying tenant is brought in. I think everyone believes in using a Town asset in an intelligent manner, but not if it keeps bleeding money at taxpayer expense. The building can certainly be mothballed or closed-down for a period until solid plans are in place. Plenty of other towns around the region have done that. Everything in Monroe is hurry up, and rush to do it. All this hysteria that the building will collapse into a giant abyss if it is closed for a period of time, is a bunch of rubbish. Sounds more like the folks that are comfortable in there, currently, at the taxpayer's expense may not want to have to move out. Even as a further consideration, what happens if some possible "tenant" wants the whole space? Sounds like these "recreational" programs could potentially be out at this location. To continue using the building, it would be much more forward thinking to be "revenue positive", and generate income for the Town, including repairs, improvements, and future maintenance. Otherwise, it still costs the taxpayers money even at "revenue neutral" to maintain the building. A proper outline would have the facility be completely self-sustaining and provide the Town with revenue.
Sue May 01, 2012 at 09:48 PM
Keep it open! All it takes is someone working hard on this project and it will happen. Too bad so much time was wasted by the leadership of this town. For one whole year this open/close debate has been going on instead of real work gathering interested people to rent portions of the building. Moth balling the school is the end of it! It will fall into disrepair and then millions of dollars will be wasted. Just once, let's not be short-sighted.
live_here May 01, 2012 at 09:49 PM
If a community center could achieve this revenue bracket, so be it, good for the Town. But from the currentTown budget data, it sounds pretty clear that the revenue number starts at $400,000 and goes up when you add all the factors in. Nothing presented here or in any other article even comes close to providing that revenue number.
live_here May 01, 2012 at 09:52 PM
One other point: From earlier articles, it sounds like there is question as to what are allowed uses of a school building in this part of Town, under the Town codes or regulations. Do any of these proposals meet the Town's rules?
live_here May 01, 2012 at 10:00 PM
"Keep it open at all costs"?? Really?? And just who is going to pay for "all costs"??? Clearly the programs in there now aren't providing that revenue. Even the new Parks & Rec Director has stated in the press that it would take a substantial tenant to offset the cost to keep the building running. $2 movie tickets equate to selling 200,000 movie tickets. Which movies can be rented that will bring in $400,000 revenue less all the royalties and production costs?? Just see locations like the Waterbury and Danbury theaters, which require annual fundraisers just to use those facilities on a part-time basis.
live_here May 01, 2012 at 10:07 PM
Millions of dollars wasted, really? Where did that number come from?! Maybe if the School Dept. did some communicating with the rest of the Town, there could have been a better transition for this building. Instead, it was a stepchild of the typical Monroe budget battle, and there was no discussion as with what to do with the building. The whole "close it and it will collapse" theory is nothing but baloney propaganda. Nothing would happen to the building if it had to close for a period while some time was really put into the effort. The Finance Board discussed the fact it could be closed at a much lower maintenance cost than it is currently operating at. Those figures were presented during the budget process.
Jethro May 01, 2012 at 10:34 PM
I think they should keep it open just to make all the penny-pinching cry babies upset. The local yokels complain about everything. The local yokels contribute nothing to this town unless you own a store that sells Pabst Blue Ribbon and Lucky Strikes.
JoAnn Toth May 01, 2012 at 11:20 PM
Jethro....... how right you are!!!!
jim laguardia May 02, 2012 at 01:38 PM
I dont think the goal of any community center should be to generate revenue, otherwise why is the one next to wolfe park only open to a certain demographic and for such limited hours?? it sits locked up and empty for hours and hours each year, yet we still pay for it
jim laguardia May 02, 2012 at 01:40 PM
maybe chalk hill could be the new location of the senior center and then the senior center could be used by the whole town
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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