Commentary: Community Center has been a long time coming

Commentary: Community Center has been a long time coming

Trivia question: How long have residents been talking about a Community Center in Durham?

Answer: Several decades, and possibly longer.

Because we are in the final stage of bringing forward a question to acquire the former Korn Elementary School to be used as a Community Center, I thought it would be valuable to review some of those discussions and to update you on what to expect in the coming months.

A Senior Advisory Committee was formed in the late nineties. The committee discussed and planned senior activities which were held in different buildings, including the firehouse, library, schools and the former clubhouse at the former Durham Rod and Gun Club. It was cumbersome and restrictive and led to discussion about a dedicated Senior Center like so many other communities had.

In 2001 a Site Selection subcommittee was formed to look for property. By the time I came into office in 2007, no permanent solution had been found and the committee was floundering and frustrated.

Because the Board of Finance had set aside funds for this purpose, we looked again for property, but this time we agreed it would be for a Community Center, a resource for all residents.

This was done for several reasons.

First, there were space needs for all programs, not just for seniors. Second, Small Cities/CDBG grant funding for dedicated senior centers was already starting to get scarce. Lastly, committee members saw a value in multi-generational programming and participation.

A referendum was held to purchase a piece of property on the corner of Meeting House Hill and Route 17.

It did not pass.

While it is difficult to know definitively why, one of the strongest opinions was that it was not centrally located. 

Because there were no properties available closer to the center of town, we rented the space now known as the Durham Activity Center, 350 Main St. It has served us well but has some serious limitations. 

Fast forward to 2018. The Town of Durham now has an option to acquire and convert Korn school into a Community Center. Silver Petrucelli, an architectural engineering firm, has been contracted to conduct an adaptive reuse study which will determine what renovations we need and/or want to do and to prepare an estimate of cost for doing so.

The Board of Finance and Town Hall staff are preparing a funding strategy which will ultimately go to referendum for approval.

We are hopeful that the referendum will be held in December. A committee has been formed to monitor the progress of the study and two public informational meetings are planned.

I have been working with staff and the Board of Finance on a funding strategy for this and other capital improvements.

We have secured a team of financial advisors to assist as well.

I firmly believe that capital projects that have a long-term benefit should be financed over time, instead of taxing current residents with the full burden.

A sound debt policy is the very way our neighboring communities have the amenities that some of you enjoy.

Stay tuned for more details on this project and for opportunities for public involvement.

Only three of the members of the Senior Site Selection Committee are still with us today. No matter the outcome, I dedicate this effort to the following advocates who were so passionate but won’t have the chance to vote for this opportunity; Ray Flynn, Peg Bascom, George Zeeb, Mary DiMella, Althea Parmelee and Howard Kelly. 

Laura Francis is First Selectman of Durham.


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