Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Asking about the Letter before Z

This morning at 8:30, as part of a regular meeting, our mayor and a contingent of city hall professionals will offer a presentation to a full council meeting of the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Councils (SCCOG) on a regional community center.

There’s a version of the proposal on the city’s website, but many feel the data is less than current (and they're right). Quite frankly I'm a LOT more concerned about the thinking and approach that came up with the concept as it's proposed than the lack of current and actual numbers.

Let me illustrate that this is the eleventh year of the twenty-first century and times have changed. Gee, you ask, in what way? I'm glad you did that otherwise I'd be stuck for what to write today. Do you remember growing up and Mom and Dad would rush to get to 'the bank' before it closed? Yep, those were the days...'banker's hours' meant a cushy job when banks opened at nine and closed at three and were never open on weekends or holidays. Your folks knew all the tellers and if you worked it right, there was a lollipop for you in every visit (through high school for some of us).

I, and probably you, haven't been inside a bank more than three times a year, if that often, for most of the last five to eight years. With ATMs, touch tone telephones and computer connectivity why would I need to go into the building, to look at my money? It's not even there.

Don't get me wrong, the 'banking industry' is still vital and vibrant, but how we do much of our banking has changed. All of which brings me back to this beaten up building on the far side of Norwich's downtown, across the street from the former Elks' Club, now the Majestic Rose, which is next door to the soon to be gone US Post Office.

Here's what I want to know to know: why does a ‘community center’ have to be a bag of bricks and mortar at 337 Main Street, when, for far fewer dollars we can operate community programs across our city? Norwich already has facilities to host many of the activities we, the residents, claim to want, to include after-school and weekend athletic as well as academic enrichment programs for hundreds, if not thousands.
Sadly, revenue shortfalls in past years have resulted in the City Council approving budgets that flat fund (or worse, reduce actual dollars) for programs provided by, and supported through, both the Norwich Public Schools and the Otis Library. The latter has actually seen a double digit decline in the level of annual municipal funding in the last half a decade with corresponding and sometimes draconian reductions in operating hours and programming.

Instead of (at least) 800K to buy a darkened building (thus assuring it never becomes part of the grand list through private ownership) and NOT fully rehab it to meet code of occupancy standards, thus requiring (even) MORE funding (not yet identified or available), why not add to the current operating budgets of both the school system and the library? It’s not that we can’t afford it to do it but rather we can’t afford to NOT do it. The infrastructure costs have already been paid-the buildings are there; fund the programming.

Public schools, traditionally regarded as an integral part of our city, are neighborhood assets and should be used to support community based programs and not packed up at the end of the school day with the lights turned out because we claim to have no money. The Otis Library serves a diverse public now-but expanding family-oriented programs for a return to Main Street, will create more people in downtown during the afternoon and early evening hours than is currently the case, which could provide a benefit, through additional foot traffic and enhanced earnings potential, to local businesses.

I don't pretend to know either the scale of investment required or the scope of the return on that investment desired but suspect it's comparable and probably superior to buying a box of broken bricks which is all the YMCA building currently is or will ever be. All we're going to do with those bricks is continue to build a wall that separates yesterday and what we once were (and will never be again), from tomorrow and what we could become. We need to learn from the past, where nothing seems to change, not mortgage our future trying to redeem it.
-bill kenny

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