Community/rec center idea in East Providence seemingly clears final hurdle

Council supports two appropriations, allows latest administration proposal to move forward

By Mike Rego
Posted 12/6/23

EAST PROVIDENCE — By two-vote margins, the City Council pretty much propelled the oft-discussed community/recreation center proposal over the final hurdle upon approving a pair of …

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Community/rec center idea in East Providence seemingly clears final hurdle

Council supports two appropriations, allows latest administration proposal to move forward


EAST PROVIDENCE — By two-vote margins, the City Council pretty much propelled the oft-discussed community/recreation center proposal over the final hurdle upon approving a pair of appropriations during its Tuesday, Dec. 5, meeting.

The body gave its backing for the administration of Mayor Bob DaSilva to enter into an agreement (see attachment) with William Starck Architects, Inc. to design the building. The measure also includes the hiring of city-based Peregrine Group to serve as the owner project manager on behalf of the city.

The contract is worth $1,025,560, $986,780 pertaining to the community/rec center proper to be built on the grounds of the Robert Rock/East Providence Senior Center off Waterman Avenue. As well, it includes a $38,780 item for Starck to conjure up a schematic to potentially add an aquatics (pool) element to the project at a future date.

In addition, the Council approved an ordinance change, earmarking $3 million in federal pandemic American Rescue Plan Act funds its previously set aside for other infrastructure improvements specifically towards the community/rec center project.

The revised plan calls for the construction of a 10,000 square foot gym, including a full-sized regulation basketball court, meeting spaces to accommodate work force training programs that are essential for the project to receive state grant monies, circulation and support (staff office) spaces and an exercise work-out area.

Both votes were 3-1. At-Large member Bob Rodericks, Ward 1's Frank Rego and Ward 4's Rick Lawson cast their lots in the affirmative. Ward 2 rep Anna Sousa was absent from the proceedings due to illness.

Ward 3 Councilor Frank Fogarty, who sponsored the original ARPA ordinance totaling $5 million towards what he envisioned in part as water/sewer fixes, was the lone dissenter.

Fogarty did not detail his opposition last week, but at other meetings leading up to the December 5 forum said he did not agree with the scope of the community/rec center proposal, including the presumed costs and materials among other aspects.

He may take some solace in the wording of the revised ordinance, which reads, "The remaining balance of $2,000,000 of ARPA funds will be used toward improvements to the infrastructure of water, sewer and roads as acceptable use of the funds."

What that all means is at the moment the administration has access to some $10 million for the project, which admittedly remains nearly $3 million shy of Starck's initial concept. Approximately $7 million is coming from two separate grant sources, $3 million in federal cash to be used for like developments and slightly more than $3 million in state dollars for workforce and continuing education programs, hence the need to include those elements into the projects.

Lawson said the Starck estimates would mean construction costs of the building itself currently would be "$10.3 million." He continued, "because we know there are going to be overages," he believed the total would be roughly $13 million, using the other some $2.7 for "soft costs" such as furniture, fixtures and equipment or the FF&E acronym used more readily in the trade.

Lawson said any additional funding needed would have to come from potential surplus dollars remaining from other ARPA projects, which the city will continue to seek other sources like more grants.

Lawson stressed, "We will not be borrowing money. We will not be affecting the city's tax levy."

Over a year in the making, the votes gave DaSilva arguably his biggest achievement since he took office in 2018 when he was chosen as the city's first-elected mayor now five years.

Upon his re-election to a second four-year term last fall, DaSilva made approval of the community/rec center project the main tenet of his inaugural address during the ceremony held this past January.

The mayor first approached the Council with a grandiose vision of his center, which had an initial estimated price tag of some $45 million.

When the body continuously voiced its opposition to a building of such size and cost, the mayor returned to the body a few more times before settling on a vastly smaller version a few months back.

After the votes a week ago, DaSilva offered brief remarks saying, "I want to express my extreme gratitude to the Council...I think this will be a project we'll all be proud of when it's complete."

Of course, this being politics, there appeared to be some horse trading done before Tuesday's vote.

Rodericks, a backer of the mayor's concept pretty much from the get-go, had earlier in the process proposed a plan likely not coincidentally similar to what the administration settled upon.

At the start of last week's meeting, Rego once again raised a key issue of his ward's agenda: putting a rescue into service full-time out of Station 3 in Rumford on North Broadway.

DaSilva has spurned previous attempts by Rego to ensure just that, but appeared to soften his position last Tuesday. Though he did not state definitively he would implement the plan, the mayor said he was willing to work with the fire department and the firefighters union to see it come to fruition.

As for Lawson, he has said all along he wanted to see a community/rec center built in some form, though he did not approve of DaSilva's initial estimated $45 million plan submitted to the Council earlier this calendar year.

One of Lawson's top agenda items for Ward 4 has been a desire to turn the former Oldham Elementary School buildings on Bullocks Point Avenue into a small business incubator. The morning after the community/rec center vote, Wednesday, Dec. 6, the administration issued a revised Request for Proposal seeking concepts to turn Oldman into just that. A couple of months ago the administration opened up a RFP, which would have allowed for redevelopment of the building/land for mixed-use purposes, a move at which Lawson balked.

(Updated, December 8, 12:55 p.m.) After the meeting Lawson disputed the reference to any negotiation between himself and the mayor about the proposed incubator, saying the topic was not broached during their discussions about the rec center.

Before the votes, Lawson and Rodericks both said they met with the mayor and members of his administration the week prior about the community/rec center, and agreed it was a "good conversation."

Lawson, who took the lead introducing the measures last Tuesday, said while he would have liked to have included a pool in the project, "financially we're just not there." He also noted the police department, which DaSilva initially wanted to include to have access to some of its investigative asset forfeiture monies, would not have any involvement with the center.

Of operational costs, Lawson said he "did not feel (they) would be onerous." He was of the mind the existing Recreation Department staff — director Diane Sullivan, Becky Chase and Tracy Johnson — could manage the programs. The only additional expenses to the city, he speculated, would be for utilities and janitorial. Lawson said he would have "zero problem" with creating another custodial position for the center or to be split with other city-owned properties.

"This will not affect taxes in any crazy way," Lawson said, adding, "We've been talking about getting a rec center for Townies for decades...I'm all in on this project. We've got through all negotiations. To me, now we're ready to move forward."

Rodericks chipped in some comments, again noting the proposal was "born of good negotiations." As considered, the project "basically is not affecting the budget. We're not going out to bond. We're not paying interest. We're not tapping into any other fees."

David Andrade, a vice president at Starck, answered a couple of questions posed to him by Rego about the proposal. He said the project is similar in scope and scale to others its done in the area and is likely to illicit some five bidders. Of the process, Andrade said the final design phase should take about 10-12 months, permitting a further two months and construction between 14-16 months.

There are time constraints on the project associated with the use of ARPA funds. Those dollars needed to be allocated by December 31, 2024 and actual construction must be substantially completed by December 31, 2026.

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