Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Community Center as a Trust Fall

If all you know about the former Norwich YMCA at 337 Main Street is what you've read in the last month to include the police and fire reports, a news article on a meeting by the Board of Review for Dangerous Buildings, and an editorial last Thursday, some history may be in order. 

Almost from the moment the YMCA closed in the spring of 2009, there has been a lot of talk about reinventing it as a community center with the discussions always highlighting the Y's location at a city gateway and the belief the building's two swimming pools could be a source of income for a center (coincidentally, or not, foreclosure proceedings have started on the Martin Luther King Jr. Center on Fairmount Street; though no one seems to be particularly interested in that building, perhaps because it has no swimming pool).

I have a well-earned reputation as a Norwich cheerleader, and I do love happy endings, so with that as a disclaimer allow me to slow but certainly not stop, momentum and movement for a downtown community center with some words of caution that I'd love to pretend aren't necessary, except we all know better.. 

Enthusiasm and optimism are important in any and every endeavor, especially in what may prove to be a private-public partnership with lots of moving parts. To me, all of that makes having a fully-developed plan before we start absolutely paramount. Hope is a very good thing and very necessary. But hope is NOT a plan. 

A plan for a community center, wherever it would be located, will require talent, time and treasure in large amounts (along with almost endless supplies of patience, transparency, open communications and a willingness to work together). I don't think I'm out of line if I suggest historically we've often not had quite enough of any of those things and then as one and then the others start to run out we wind up with a really good idea poorly executed that no one wants, needs or can afford. 

In 2010 the late Luis DePina, then the Recreation Department director, responded to the community’s desire for “someplace the kids can go” by proposing the city take over the Y and require reasonable membership fees from the general public, and partnerships with public and private agencies, to create and maintain a more focused (leaner, though certainly not meaner) operation. The idea was to appeal to a broad enough spectrum of people across the city that it could operate on the incomes it generated itself without costing taxpayer money.

The swimming pools were and still are highlighted in discussions about revenue generation but my recollection is that the YMCA offered far more than swimming pools and that it was a lot of those 'other programs' very much in high demand in a city with our demographics and needs which also had high operating costs that weren't being successfully offset by enough profitable programs to allow the YMCA to break even. 

This process is still very early. Rallying supporters and identifying resources are just getting started. Before we can draw the map to where we're heading we need to agree on what that place is. We have talent within our city, like the Youth and Family Services Department for ideas on programs' development and implementation. 

We have the Public Works Department starting with the director whose running shoes pound the pavement on the lookout for areas to improve, to and through engaged employees on every single work crew painting and patching every day. 

And we have helping hands, like Tariko Satterfield, with a head full of ideas and a heart big enough to pump enthusiasm into every corner of Norwich and an army of residents and neighbors who can each of us, do a little something that at the end of the day is a big something.  

A lot of this election cycle just passed was viewed as a referendum on trust at the national level. But here in Norwich we know and trust the neighbors we've chosen to act on our behalf in local government. And if we don't trust them, we should choose new ones. We're all we've got and trust is our shared currency. We can build a sense of community while we build a community center. As a matter of fact, we'll have to create the former if we ever hope to have the latter.   
-bill kenny

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