Rec Center project moves toward construction
BENNINGTON — The first phase of an ambitious, multi-million dollar plan to expand and transform the Bennington Recreation Center is expected to reach the construction stage by late fall.
The Select Board heard an update Monday on the proposal, which the town is involved in through a partnership with the Early Childhood Services Division at United Counseling Service and the local Head Start program it manages.
Betsy Rathbun-Gunn, director of the UCS division, and Jeff Goldstone and Jack Byer of Goldstone Architecture, gave a presentation that included images of the proposed center and floor plans showing one and both phases completed.
"This is very exciting," Rathbun-Gunn said Tuesday. "I hope that in October we can have a groundbreaking ceremony."
Phase one includes an addition along one side of the existing Rec Center to house early childhood classrooms and related services, as well as multi-use community spaces, plus a new building main entrance and lobby and an elevator. Twenty-five new parking spaces also will be created.
The construction work could be completed by October 2020, Rathbun-Gunn said.
She added that, along with the Putnam Block redevelopment project now underway downtown, "we hope this will be a jumpstart [for the local economy]."
Rathbun-Gunn said the $3.5 million required for phase one would come from federal grant programs designed to develop facilities for early childhood educational and other services for children and families.
Having been approved at the regional level for the funding, the grant is "in the late stages" of the application process, she said, adding, "I don't have a check in hand from Washington, D.C., but it looks good."
A key reason the grant applications have been viewed favorably, Rathbun-Gunn said, is because this has been a cooperative effort with the town and the Rec Center, not a standalone facility only benefiting Head Start programs.
"It is because of this partnership that we are getting this funding," she said.
Phase two proposal
Even if a second phase addition is never constructed, there will be some design overlap initially to facilitate a possible second project.
The architects also are preparing conceptual designs for a proposed phase two gymnasium and second-story running track addition, which would be funded by the town and/or through further grant awards or fund-raising efforts.
The town also is weighing funding a small renovation effort that would take some space from the current Rec Center office to expand the fitness equipment section on the Gage Street side of the center. Funding for that and for the proposed gymnasium addition would be the responsibility of the town.
Goldstone said Tuesday that his firm is completing design development for the UCS/Head Start space addition and related construction and working with Bread Loaf construction, of Middlebury, which has been hired to manage the construction project.
Bread Loaf also is acting as project manager for phase one of the Putnam Block project, focusing on full renovation of three historic buildings at the Four Corners intersection in the downtown.
Goldstone and Byer displayed design images Monday that showed the completed building from different viewpoints, along with floor plans.
The phase one addition will include a new main entrance to the right of the original Rec Center building that faces Gage Street, which has been closed in favor of a second entrance to the east of the building, facing the tennis courts.
The new main entrance would be two stories in height and contain a lobby space, an elevator and community spaces, along with access to both the Rec Center areas and to the Head Start classroom space.
A sprinkler system will be added to the entire building as part of phase one.
Asked about the possible need for a shutdown of Rec Center programming during the construction, Goldstone said there should be minimal need to close or restrict access to those sections.
Features of the proposed addition include five classrooms for Head Start programs, a commercial style kitchen area and a kitchen/learning space nearby for educational programs, plus multipurpose community spaces.
Skylight windows are planned along the roof over the swimming pool section of the Rec Center, replacing existing windows that currently face to the west but will be covered by the addition. Plans also call for additional parking spaces and a new playground area.
Also planned for the facility is a gallery/observation space from which to view the swimming pool during swim meets or other events or programs. The elevator in phase one would access second story spaces as well as the existing basement spaces at the center.
If the town completes phase two of the proposal, there would be a two-story gymnasium addition with an indoor running track on the second floor.
However, no decision has been made to pursue phase two, and no firm cost estimates have been obtained or specific financing strategy identified, town Planning Director Daniel Monks said Tuesday.
"It will require a lot of additional discussion and research before a final decision will be made," he said. "It is worth noting that an improved and expanded Rec Center has long been a goal of the town."
Monks added, "In conclusion, the proposed expansion of the Rec Center is an exciting opportunity for the citizens of Bennington. If phase one and two are fully realized, the Rec Center will become a true community center serving the diverse citizenry of Bennington."
Rathbun-Gunn said the cooperative proposal began to come together last summer, when it was first presented as a concept to the Select Board. In November, preliminary design and funding plans were presented, and the board approved going ahead to seek funding and complete the design.
Some residents continued Monday to question the ultimate cost to taxpayers and in fees for Rec Center programming.
Nancy White and other speakers questioned whether too many decisions were being made between the board and outside organizations without enough citizen input, and whether the changes would boost the tax rate.
White contended that townwide votes should be held on the current or subsequent agreements around the Rec Center proposals.
She and others also have been critical of a contract between the town and the Berkshire Family YMCA to manage Rec Center programs for a year through November to determine whether a more permanent management agreement should be instituted.
White contends that the relatively low Rec Center membership and other fees could rise out of reach of many residents under YMCA leadership and an expected expansion of programs and services.
The YMCA is not a partner in the Rec Center building expansion projects.
Officials said Monday that a series of regular project updates are planned, beginning in August, to provide information and allow citizen feedback and questions.
Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien
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