Town, Community Center consider partnership for expansion

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz asked selectmen and board members of the Bridgton Community Center Tuesday to consider teaming up to build a larger complex on the Center’s Depot Street property. A public-private partnership, he said, might be the solution for meeting both the social service and recreational needs of residents in one central location.

Berkowitz’s proposal came in a joint meeting called to discuss the Memorandum of Understanding, or MOU, between the town and the independent Center’s board. He said teaming up would potentially make a wider range of funding available for expansion, since each entity can apply to funding sources not available to the other.

“The town has the opportunity to look at a public/private partnership in a way that is brand new,” said Berkowitz. Such a partnership could make possible “a jointly-designed building that meets all of our needs.”

The partnership, he said, would work by having the town continue to maintain ownership of the facility, with assurances that the Center would have an agreement that is “tantamount to ownership” by entering into three terms of 99-year leases.

Since the town took over the former armory building a decade or so ago, he said, both sides have adhered to the MOU, even though it has never formally been signed. In those years the Center has greatly expanded its programs, and the town’s recreation needs have also grown significantly.

The Center’s board could pursue funds from the Ham Foundation and the Libra Foundation, both of which would be favorably disposed to a creative partnership model, he said. The model is so unique to the state that I believe the Libra and Ham Foundations will want to get in on it,” Berkowitz said.

The model of a public/private partnership has been successfully implemented to create community service facilities in Lebanon, N.H., and Bettington, Vt., he said. “It’s taken generations to work out the kinks, but the benefits go on for many more years.”

At the same time, he said, the town could pursue Community Development Block Grant funds, as well as funds from Rural Development and Efficiency Maine.

“Of course, that still means we’re not going to get away without some bonding,” said Berkowitz, but the cost would be significantly less, say, than if the town built a brand new recreational complex on another site, such as at the BRAG Complex.

“People will just not take on that big of a bite,” when it comes to borrowing a million or more dollars for a new building, Berkowitz said.

Annual appropriations to support the Center would still continue at Town Meeting, and a Capital Improvement Program would need to be established for long-term needs, he added.

The staff at the Community Center would continue to operate as it does now, providing social service programs and education, said Berkowitz, while the town’s Recreation Director would manage recreational programs at the facility. Berkowitz envisioned adding on to the side and back of the building to provide more classroom space and a large activity room.

The plan would require dissolution of the MOU and the creation of a new lease agreement, he said. “It can be worked out if both parties are willing to do it,” he said. He added that when he was Recreation Director for the town of Berlin, N.H., he secured an agreement from the Berlin mill to use its fields for recreation.

Initial response by selectmen and the Center’s Board of Directors was generally favorable, although several questions were raised. Of particular concern was whether the Center’s capacity to secure grant funding would be limited by its non-ownership of the building. Center Board member Mike Tarantino said, however, that he “loved” the idea of establishing three terms of 99-year leases.

“I’m nervous,” said Selectman Bernie King, as to how the partnership would work in practice.

Center Board member Peter Berry pointed out that the board’s emphasis to date has been on taking over ownership of the building. “Are we going to (now) say, let’s postpone the acceptance of the building and go off in a new direction?”

Tarantino said, however, that “For us to continue the route we’re on, it’s going to be counter-productive. So let’s go back and do it as a joint group.”

Selectman Paul Hoyt said that it makes sense to investigate the process of creating such a partnership. “If it doesn’t pan out, it doesn’t pan out.”

Berkowitz agreed.

“This has so many positives that I encourage you all to explore it to the n’th degree,” he said.

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