Town Hall project approval a 'victory for all of Newington'

Published on Thursday, 9 November 2017 14:44
Written by Erica Schmitt

Staff Writer

NEWINGTON - Once and for all, there will be a new Town Hall.

And a new community center, after voters overwhelmingly approved a $28.8 million rebuild of Newington Town Hall and Mortensen Community Center this week.

Seventy percent of people voted in favor of the project Tuesday. This landslide came as a surprise and relief to town officials, who have been back and forth to the drafting board for over a decade.

Building Committee Chairman Joe Harpie’s initial reaction to the news was “relief, joy and pride.”

“It’s a victory for all of Newington,” he said. “I’m surprised it was so wide a margin. Thank you to those who voted and for people who didn’t support it, we’re going to double down and make sure the end product is something everyone can respect and make use of.”

Harpie led the most recent group in planning the renovation, along with architect Quisenberry-Arcari-Malik and construction manager Downes Construction.

Over the last few years, half-a-dozen other committees failed to earn the public’s confidence in their designs. Each worked hard and made its own contribution to the project, but residents would not be easily impressed.

Built in 1950 and expanded in 1955 and 1971, the existing facility has been deteriorating for quite a while. Longtime resident Gary Bolles remembered cautioning the town in the early seventies that building systems needed to be updated.

The last design brought to voters in 2014 failed by a 5-1 margin. It called for a $30 million renovation to Town Hall and a total reconstruction of the community center in Mill Pond Park. Post-referendum polling and focus groups revealed wide opposition to the center’s rebuild, especially in the park.

A new building committee came to be and in spring 2015, two more plans were on the table. Put forward this time was a $37 million new Town Hall and community center and alternatively, a $44 million renovation with additions. Both received negative feedback that summer, leading the town back to square one once again.

When a scaled-back, $34 million plan for a building ten percent smaller failed to earn support at another hearing that October, the Town Council disbanded the committee.

Newington residents had projected their voices, and the one heard loud and clear pleaded for addressing the town’s “needs, not wants.” Once cost became priority one, trimming the fat soon followed.

In 2016, a newly formed team determined the most cost-effective option was to demolish and start from scratch. The plan that would soon receive more support than any prior featured a 72,960-square-foot Town Hall and community center. This proposal would not require a tax increase and would finally sway the majority of voters.

Parks and Recreation headquarters will boast two gymnasiums, a preschool wing, basketball courts and other activity areas to accommodate a growing clientele. Town Hall offices will be divided accordingly, with separate entrances for the transition academy, human services and Town Hall business. New plumbing, heating and cooling systems, as well as handicapped accommodations, will make the facility accessible, comfortable and workable for all who use it.

If all goes as planned, construction is expected to begin next summer with a fall 2019 completion.

“We have to consult with the staff and check the general fiscal climate to determine the best timing to go into the bond market,” Mayor Roy Zartarian said this week. “We have to keep our finger on Moody’s for any changes in our bond rating. It’s excellent right now but could change as Connecticut towns are downgraded.”

Erica Schmitt can be reached at 860-801-5097, or eschmitt@cnetralctcommunications.com.



Posted in Newington Town Crier, Newington News on Thursday, 9 November 2017 14:44. Updated: Thursday, 9 November 2017 14:46.