East Providence City Council gives initial support for converting Oldham building into Rec Center

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EAST PROVIDENCE — There’s a chance the long-sought after replacement for the existing Recreation Center in the city could come to fruition after the City Council helped set the wheels in motion at its meeting Tuesday night, April 15, by backing a proposal of Ward 4 representative Chrissy Rossi.

All four councilors on hand for the meeting (Council President Jim Briden was absent due to illness) pledged their initial support to Mrs. Rossi’s plan, which would convert the former James R.D. Oldham School building on Bullocks Point Avenue into the new home for the Rec Center, currently and for years situated in the old Riverside Junior High School location also on Bullocks Point Avenue.

After consultation with city administrators, including Finance Director Malcolm Moore, Mrs. Rossi is seeking a budget of $1.2 million for the project.

The plan calls for using about half of the 12-acre site as a soccer/youth sports complex. The existing structure, including the gymnasium, would be used by Rec Department personnel to run the several programs offered. It would require roof repairs, a new fire suppression system and some other minor cosmetic enhancements like fresh paint. The money would come from a bond approved by the Council through a resolution.

Converting the Oldham building into a Rec Center would likely put an end to pursuit of a completely new facility, something voters twice have passed through previous ballot referendums (in 2002 and 2005), each time granting the city authority to pursue upwards of $5 million in bond money for the project. In both instances, however, either the economy as a whole or the fiscal plight of the city itself led officials not to follow through on seeking the funding.

“The people have voted for the Rec Center twice, and nothing ever came from it,” Mrs. Rossi said. “This is an opportunity to finally get something done. For the last five or six years, people have been looking to build a soccer complex and we need a new Rec Center. This can solve both of those issues.”

Mrs. Rossi said the notion of converting the Oldham building first struck her last year when its closure and the subsequent moving of the students and staff to the former Meadowcrest site became official. As the building was being cleared out, she asked City Facilities Manager Ed Catelli if it were possible to go through the structure and see what could be utilized elsewhere.

It was then that Mr. Catelli noted the large size of the parcel. Mrs. Rossi said she also knew Oldham was not on the property sales list put together by the former Budget Commission, so there wasn’t an urgent need to sell the land. At that point, she went to former City Manager Peter Graczykowski to discuss the possibility of turning the site into a Rec Center. He backed the idea and allowed the councilwoman to pursue it.

Mrs. Rossi said she met with members of the Rec Department staff, Mr. Catelli and architects from SMMA (Symmes Maini & McKee Associates), who have done extensive work with the school department. The architects said fire safety upgrades would be needed and the building’s roof, the main reason for the school shift, could be repaired rather than be replaced as it did not need to reach the high standards demanded by an academic facility.

With that information in tow, Mrs. Rossi went to Mr. Moore to seek an amount the city could reasonably afford to possibly put towards the project. He came back with the $1.2 million figure, a number the councilwoman said will be adhered to strictly.

Mrs. Rossi also hopes to work with area businesses and youth sports organizations to help augment some of the costs. For instance, she said the East Providence American Youth Soccer Association (AYSO) chapter 715 has been waiting for the city to adopt a formal plan to build a soccer complex before seeking grant money to put towards the project. Other youth sports groups could also be part of the process and Mrs. Rossi said once in place both indoor and outdoor space can be rented as a means of making additional revenue.

“Hopefully, if we do this right, we can rent the fields out and make some money out of this. I think this would be great for the people of East Providence, but we’re also looking at how we can generate revenue for the city,” she added.

No timetable has yet been determined for the project. Mrs. Rossi is planning to bring the necessary parties together for a walk-through of the site some time in the next week. From there the appropriation resolution would need to be passed by the Council and bids for construction would need to go out.

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