Barrington Community Center site debated


Should Barrington pursue a new community center on town-owned land near Veterans Park and the Bayside YMCA? At least two members of the town’s community center task force think so, though some town officials have their doubts.

Task force chairwoman Margaret Kane and town councilor William DeWitt were among a half dozen individuals to debate the issue at a recent meeting.

Ms. Kane said efforts to construct a new community center have been moving forward centered on land off West Street. She said the spot has numerous advantages including the fact it is already owned by the town and its proximity to the Y could lend itself to a private-public collaboration that would minimize the need for Barrington’s potential community center to include facilities such as a gymnasium.

But some are concerned with the idea.

Town councilor Kate Weymouth said she believed a recently authorized feasibility study wasn’t attached to a location and had some reservation with the idea because the Y is a membership organization.

Town council president June Speakman said the town needs more of an idea on what the relationship would look like between the town and the Y.

“For the council, those kinds of specifics matter,” she said.

Ms. Kane said the town already partners with the Y on senior programs, among other initiatives. Bayside YMCA Executive Director Joe Martino said the agency offers grant-funded programs at the town’s senior center.

“It made so much sense,” said task force member Ron Winter of teaming with the Y.

A community center facility study conducted three and a half years ago concurred. After reviewing a half-dozen sites around town and receiving input from dozens of stakeholders, the study recommended pursuit of a facility adjacent to the YMCA.

The study states that while there is some potential for expansion at the government center, site restraints, existing building character and neighbors constrain the potential for new program space. The site also looked at the Bay Spring Community Center, Police Cove, Zion Bible property and the Maple Avenue Medical Center.

“A new facility adjacent to the YMCA would allow for the potential of a public/private partnership, efficiency of space and funding, and collaboration between existing recreation and education programs including the recreation department, the community school and the YMCA,” reads the study.

“Additionally, a new facility at the YMCA site would more fully engage the Veteran’s Memorial Park and utilize existing connectivity via the East Bay Bike Path.”

Mr. DeWitt said he doesn’t want the town to build a facility that seems too small in hindsight. He said the town should start big and scale back if that doesn’t work.

He also argued that location isn’t crucial because Barrington isn’t a large geographic area and the town constructing its own facilities would help avoid situations where a single resource is simultaneously in demand by local residents and Y members.

“I think we’re proceeding down a path that’s settling before we really get input from people,” Mr. DeWitt said.

The debate, meanwhile, has thrown a wrench into the work of a consultant hired by the town to gauge the philanthropic willingness of local residents to donate to such a project. The town council approved an expenditure of up to $25,000 to hire Hannah Street Consultants, of Providence, in Sept. 2012.

Ms. Kane said one reason for conducting the feasibility study is the probability that voters will be faced with a significant bond issue in the future for a new or renovated middle school. That might make it difficult to persuade voters to support a new community center though if a portion of the project is privately funded, the proposal might be more palatable.

The May 2009 community center study labeled a new, 17,000 square foot facility with a $5.2 million cost.

Betsy Grenier, of Hannah Street Consultants, said it’s tough to gauge someone’s interest in donating to a project that doesn’t have a plan or a location.

“In Rhode Island, philanthropic dollars are very competitive,” she said. “One has to have as concrete a vision as possible.”

Mr. Martino — who wasn’t in attendance for the meeting — said discussions between the town and the Y have been preliminary and the two sides actually haven’t discussed the matter in sometime. Mr. Martino also said the YMCA partners with municipalities around the country every day and the agency is always open to looking at ways of working together.

“It’s not uncommon,” said Mr. Martino of partnerships between the agency and communities.

“But right now ... I think a lot has to be discussed before we can really get heavily involved in a conversation.”

Ms. Kane and town planner Phil Hervey said they planned on speaking with Y representatives to discuss a possible memorandum of understanding that could be presented to the town council outlining an agreement between the agency and the town.

The task force is expected to meet again later this month.


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A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.