Organizers hear questions on rec center project

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BENNINGTON — At a meeting Wednesday, officials presented plans and answered questions from the public about security, design and use in a pending renovation and addition project at the Bennington Recreation Center.

Shannon Barsotti, community development director for the town, welcomed the small crowd of about 20 people to the meeting, held at the Bennington Senior Center.

"This really is about partnership," she said, calling the rec center and the senior center some of the "greatest assets" the town has.

Betsy Rathbun-Gunn, director of Early Childhood Services at UCS, went over the first phase of the renovation project before answering audience questions.

"We really wanted to get your thoughts and feedback," she said. "In an hour meeting, it's hard for us to really get down deep into any discussions. But we really see these meetings as time for us to really be able to get feedback from the community, have some thoughts around it."

This means that when the team is thinking through the project, "we can keep those thoughts as we move forward," she said.

The gathering was the first of a series of meetings, called "Pulse" meetings, to gauge the pulse of the community about the project. The next meeting will be held Oct. 16. The complete meeting schedule is posted on the town's website, benningtonvt.org.

Rathbun-Gunn went over conceptual designs for the renovations for the audience.

The $3.5 million phase one addition to the center on Gage Street is planned to house early childhood programming and services. The project plan also includes multi-use community spaces and a new building main entrance and lobby with an elevator.

The first phase, expected to go to construction in October, would be funded through grants to the local UCS Head Start program.

Phase two work, if funding can be secured by the town, includes a proposed gymnasium and second-story running track addition, which would be funded by the town and/or through further grant awards or fund-raising efforts.

"One of the things that we have recognized in talking about this in the community is that sometimes people are confused, rightfully so in some respects, about what is phase one and what is phase two," Rathbun-Gunn said. "This is phase one. This is what we have funding for. This is what we're going forward with building."

Rathbun-Gunn said she sometimes hears around the community that people believe the entire rec center is being re-done. But that's not true.

"We're adding this on to the rec center, but the current rec center, in the women's room, the men's room, the fitness center, the pool, the downstairs is not changing right now," she said. "And I think that's one of the things I want to be really clear about, because people get confused about the two."

An important change coming for the community in phase one is the new, "very exciting community space," she said. It will have three different kitchens attached, one main one, one "cafe kitchen" for smaller projects and another, a kid's learning kitchen.

"This is exciting too," she said. "We see this as being a little, miniature, real kitchen. Stainless steel, small ovens, small ways to be able to cook. Kids can actually make and produce real food, not just the cookies or something like that that we traditionally do in the classroom."

Rathbun also discussed the new entrance to the facility and its "two-story, atrium-type space" as people come in.

The new plan will allow access to the building "in a way that I think makes a lot of sense," she said.

The new entrance area has also been designed with the possible phase two of the project in mind, she said.

"We have thought about what that connection might be," she said. There will be a plan to allow elevator access to the upper floor, so that for phase two, the building can be connected.

"We've been really thoughtful about what we need for today, and what might happen if we move into phase two," she said.

The architects, Goldstone Architecture, have also worked hard to maintain the original sense of the building, she said.

One of the innovative designs for the project, she said, is to have disappearing walls, to allow larger spaces.

"Think of a garage door that has glass inserts that go up and over, so that the doors can kind of go away, and then they can come back down and provide privacy to the space," she said. "We think it's a pretty innovative design there, too."

There will also be basement access, with the expectation that it contain a walk-in cooler and freezer, Rathbun-Gunn said.

Besides the new entrance, there will also be a small play area for the early childhood program that would be open to kids on nights and weekends. There will also be five classrooms, three of them for infants and toddlers.

"Many of you might know, but infant-toddler care in this community is really desperately needed," Rathbun-Gunn said. "Employees are desperate to be able to find care for their young children so that they can go to work, and that's what we want to help support."

There will also be additional office space and space for nursing mothers, she said.

"There's really nothing that's going to change on the outside, except additional activities and spaces," she said.

Twenty-five new parking spaces also will be created around the Rec Center and a sprinkler system will be added throughout the center.

The construction work is expected to be completed by October 2020.

Town Manager Stuart Hurd, who attended the meeting, said that the original rec center will essentially be "wrapped around" by the addition.

One woman asked Rathbun-Gunn how the new modern addition with the main space, which is from the 1970s, and if it would be somewhat jarring.

"I don't think so," she responded. "I think our architects have really worked hard."

Considerations like that could be added to phase two's list of things that could be improved in the current rec center, she said.

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In response to the woman's question, Barsotti said it's important to point out that the town has invested a lot into renovations of the existing rec center.

"There's been quite a lot of work done to make the current rec center a much healthier space," she said. "I don't want that to get lost in the discussion."

She said the new, shared entrance to the building will be "transformative" to the experience of coming to the facility.

"I'm excited, because the [front] desk is going to be entry-level," said Jessie Rumlow, interim director of the rec center. "Right now, our membership staff are kind of in a window, kind of removed from the interaction, so it's a little bit harder to engage. The rec center is definitely seeing some great improvements, even with phase one, that we're really excited about."

Audience member Nancy White asked who is responsible for phase two of the project.

"Phase two really is a town responsibility," Hurd responded. "For years, citizens in surveys have told us we have a lack of gymnasium space in the community, we have a lack of ability to serve youth and elderly with new programs."

Phase two will begin to address this, with things like a gymnasium and additional program space on the second floor.

White also if phase two funding would come from the taxpayers. "Potentially," Hurd replied. "Not all of it, necessarily, because there are grants available to the community." But principally, it would probably be paid for with bonds.

White said she urged the plans and costs to be released.

"They will be," Hurd said. "The problem here is — we have a proposed phase two. We are not anywhere near ready to present phase two in the kind of detail you would expect when a bond vote is being posed to the community. We're not there yet."

White said the town has had other priorities besides recreation in the past.

"I don't think it's realistic to put something like that for phase two out in our community," she said.

At this point, it's "basically putting a face on the dream," Hurd said. "This is an opportunity for the community to see what is possible."

Beth Wallace, family and community partnership manager with the local Head Start program managed by UCS, said organizers want to be clear about the fact that their phase one plans will not impede a phase two, "if and when it ever happens."

"So that's why we took the opportunity to have that developed a little bit," she said.

Rathbun-Gunn also spent part of the meeting going through plans for phase two.

"Nobody is saying this is what's going to be built," she said. "It's kind of putting, as [Hurd] says, a face to the dream."

The gymnasium would allow sport activities that people say they can't play elsewhere, due to lack of space, she said. There'd also be a new mens' locker room and a re-done womens' locker room, along with an indoor, multi-lane running track and exercise rooms with movable walls.

"Again, this is just conceptual at this point," she said.

After Rathbun-Gunn completed her main presentation, she answered more questions.

"In today's environment, has the question of security been addressed?" one man asked.

In phase one, there will be a swipe-card or buzz-in system at the main entrance and the entrance to the UCS section of the building. There will also probably be "some sort" of video cameras, she said.

"Security has been a major focus of what we've discussed," she said. "We still want to keep it a friendly, open, accessible building, but in today's world, security is certainly a key issue to be thoughtful about, absolutely."

Jeanne Conner, a member of the Select Board, asked what kinds of things organizers are envisioning in the new community space.

"Bennington could benefit from any open space for lots of things," Rathbun-Gunn said. "It's really an open space."

It could be for teen nights, game nights or things like after-school programs, she said.

"I see it from my perspective — as open to the community as possible," she said.

"That's great," Conner replied.

There will be a groundbreaking ceremony for the project on Oct. 16 at 1 p.m.

"It's a very aggressive time schedule," Rathbun-Gunn said. "And it's all probably dependent on the winter."

Bread Loaf Corp, of Middlebury, which is acting as construction manager, is aware that the rec center has to continue operating during renovation, she said.

"We really see small, minimal impacts," she said. "Doesn't mean that there won't be noise occasionally."

When reached Thursday, Rathbun-Gunn said she was very pleased about the feedback and participation at the meeting.

"We hope people will continue to come," she said.

Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at pleboeuf@benningtonbanner.com, at @BAN_pleboeuf on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 118.


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