SWANTON — Community members here have publicly discussed the idea of a community center in Swanton for years. But that idea took one giant leap toward reality Tuesday night.
That’s when the town selectboard publicly announced the possibility of buying the old Wayside Furniture building on Blake Street, which has housed the Swanton Teen Center since the Wayside closed in 2018.
The Swanton Teen Center’s managers and the Swanton Recreation Dept.’s board of directors propose joining forces to turn the current teen center into a full-fledged community center.
Selectperson Joel Clark read a prepared statement about the possibility at this meeting. He answered inevitable questions — for example, how would this affect the taxpayers? — but also, in an unusual move for a traditionally cautious board, came out strongly in favor of the proposal.
The Swanton Rec Dept. needs programming space. Clark’s example was the annual summer camp the rec department runs with the Northern Tier Center for Health (NOTCH).
Clark said that camp serves 140 kids “with limited space inside for programs and [in case of] weather issues.”
He also said the rec department doesn’t have indoor space for its existing programs, Clark’s examples being yoga classes, or to relocate its gymnastics classes from the Swanton Public Library — let alone to expand its programming for the community.
Clark said the former Wayside building is an ideal location for the community center. Clark said it is “prime real estate next to the rec fields.”
“The opportunity to purchase it may not come again,” Clark said. “And that I really want to stress. I do not want to see the town lose the opportunity to grab that piece of property and to keep it for the town’s use next to the rec fields.”
Clark said the building’s owner “has indicated that he would be interested in selling the property to the town.”
He said the owner and the town haven’t yet agreed on a price for the property, “but we do know the approximate range.”
Clark proposed using existing town funds to cover a portion of the sale, and then to borrow an additional $100,000 to cover the property’s remaining cost.
And he already had specifics regarding what that could mean to residents.
Clark said a $100,000 loan over a 10-year period at 3.2 percent interest costs $11,844.70 per year, approximately $12,000. But Clark noted the town’s current budget already includes $12,000 per year for the teen center, “so we could cover the cost of the purchase of that facility with the money that we currently give the teen center.
“That would not be an increase to the taxpayer for the purchase of the property.”
The selectboard can’t decide to take that loan on its own, and Clark made sure those in attendance knew it. He said voters have to approve both the purchase and the loan, “so the selectboard could not even approve this in the next few meetings if we wanted to.”
Town voters will probably decide on both the purchase and the loan during Town Meeting Day voting in March.
The property currently has a rented apartment. Clark said the board checked with the town attorney and determined the town can continue renting the apartment if the town purchases the building.
“It’s not something we want to do long-term, but it’s something we could do for several years,” Clark said, “and the rent could offset the annual loan or be used to reduce the rec budget increase.”
The building needs some work. Clark said it needs renovations to its flooring and walls as well as window replacements. He said the rec department plans to fund as much of that work as it can, but Clark said he imagines the improvements turning into “community projects.”
“Several people could go in there and bang hammers and put walls up in a weekend and make it a win-win for everybody,” he said.
If the town does buy the building, Clark said the teen center organization merges with the rec department “to ensure a smooth transition to the new mode of operation.”
He acknowledged the center would still need to identify funding sources, including potential grants, for continued programming at that time.
But that’s nothing new for either the rec department or the teen center.
What would be new is greater funding for the rec department. Clark said the department needs a “significant increase” in funding if the community decides to go forward with this, including funding to hire a full-time coordinator, season staff and to pay the building’s utilities cost.
Clark estimated the rec department annually needs an additional $60,000 if the town decides to make this plan reality.
Clark looked at the town’s 2019 budget. He said the proposed $60,000 rec department funding increase would raise the general budget rate from .1462 to .15517. He said that translates to an additional $22.43 per year for homeowners whose homes are assessed at $250,000, or $1.87 per month.
Clark acknowledged the education tax, which he said costs the majority of Swanton taxes — for example, 77 percent of Swanton taxpayers’ 2018 tax bill, according to Clark — could shift that projected tax rate a few dollars. But “it would be in that ballpark,” he said.
“This is an opportunity to secure the future for the teen center and to fill the rec department’s need for additional space,” Clark concluded. “...For all the right reasons, the time to purchase the property is now.
“This is a win for the teens. This is a win for the rec department and all they serve.”
Dan Billado, the selectboard chair, asked if anyone in attendance had questions for Clark.
It was a level of attendance local government rarely sees. People filled the entire meeting room in the town office building on the corner of Academy Street. There were so many people attendees spilled out into the hallway, where they stood and listened.
No one had a question for Clark.
Betsy Fournier chairs the rec department’s board of directors. She stood after Clark’s presentation to address the public, which she urged to see the project “as an investment in your community.”
Fournier said she’s been on the rec department board for 14 years. And she noted it’s been nearly as long since the rec department’s budget increased — 10 years.
Fournier echoed Clark’s statements about the building’s location, right off the Dick Thompson rec path and within walking distance of Swanton School.
She said the rec department’s goal is “really creating a space where everybody feels welcome to walk through the door,” including senior citizens and parents.
Fournier highlighted the center’s social potential. She remembered being a stay-at-home mom.
“I just loved to have conversations and my husband had nothing to do with it when he came home,” she said, to the audience’s laughter.
Fournier listed programming the rec department imagines hosting at the center: half-day and snow day school programs, CPR, babysitting, hunter safety courses, cooking classes, cultural classes, birthday, parenting courses, yoga and music lessons. She noted there’s already a “beautiful” music room in the building.
Then she turned it over to “Dr. Chip.”
Chiappinelli said the teen center and rec department have “a lot of interests in common,” and that merging the two will “eliminate a lot of duplication.”
“The needs of the teens aren’t the same as they were when we started,” Chiappinelli said. The teen center opened 20 years ago.
He said now there are widespread after-school programs.
“There’s also a lot of teens I think that spend way too much in their rooms on their electronic equipment,” Chiappinelli said. “Things that we would like to change.
“We look at this as an opportunity for Swanton. Not just the teens, but for Swanton. I think a community center is a great way to go ... Basically, what we’re finding out now is that teens do a lot better if they’re around family members, other people that they can follow. No surprise there, but it can make a tremendous difference.”
Chiappinelli said the teens will still have their own area of the community center, but can participate in the broader center areas — just as adults can participate in the teen areas.
“We would have kids from virtually birth to death there,” he said, meaning children to senior citizens.
“I don’t see it as losing a teen center. I see it as gaining a community center. ... It brings the teens more in sync with the rest of the community.”
Billado remembered donating a couch and television to the teen center when it started.
“Twenty years he’s never backed down at all,” he said, regarding Chiappinelli. “He’s always made it go, make it work. You need a hand too.”
Those in attendance gave Chiappinelli a round of applause, followed by a round of applause for Mary — who then pointed out grant funding is easier when a municipality owns a building.
Billado,for the sake of the Messenger, then asked for everyone in the room in favor of the project to raise their hands.
The room was full of hands.
He asked everyone in the room who opposed the project to raise their hands.
Not a single hand went up.