Opinion: A Community Center: If Not At Wildwood, Where?

Photo: flckr.com. (CC BY 2.0)

by Kitty Axelson-Berry, Maura Keene, and Art Keene

As the decision on the preferred site for the new elementary school looms, some councilors and other town officials have been making comments in public meetings (see for example here) that indicate they do not support holding onto whichever school building  is not selected and retaining it for reuse.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman has described vacated town buildings as “liabilities.” Councilor Cathy Schoen has lamented fiscal stressors already on the budget and commented that the town shouldn’t take on any more. And at the Finance Committee meeting on May 26, Council President Lynn Griesemer described the “inheritance [of municipal buildings’ as being dumped on us” and leaving the town with the burden of repairs. “I think it’s important that we have a policy as to whether we want to accept these buildings,” Griesemer said.

At the same time, Griesemer, Schoen, and their other colleagues on the Council and Finance Committee have heard from many residents of late about woefully inadequate senior center,, the need for a BIPOC Cultural Center and a Youth Empowerment Center, and the need for facilities for other community groups and activities. 

According to data shared by Director of Senior Services Hayley Bolton, there are 5,200 seniors living in Amherst. This represents almost one-third of the year-round population. Seniors are a substantial voting block in town elections, yet their needs are not being met and their relative value to the town is not reflected in the budget.

Bockelman has said that “[town-owned space] is at a premium,” which became especially clear when he could not even find 2,000 square feet of vacant town space for a temporary location for Amherst Media.

So we would ask Mr. Bockelman, Councilor Griesemer, and her colleagues on the Town Council, where would they propose to put these and other critical town and community needs  if they are unwilling to repurpose  the vacated elementary school?

Do they  support the right of our substantial senior population to sufficient facilities for programs including specialized exercises, for communal meals and games, for meetings and social events? If they do, where do they propose these facilities should be located? 

If the town is in such bad financial shape that we can’t afford to improve the Wildwood building (and we’re told over and over again that the town is in very good financial shape)  ,which would be the most feasible candidate for a viable BIPOC cultural center, a viable youth empowerment center, and a viable senior center, what are the chances we could afford to purchase properties in town to design and build them new? A senior center, for example, is said to require about 25,000 square feet.  It seems rather unlikely, especially when you consider that a small addition to the tiny North Amherst Library is estimated to cost $2 million. Logic, therefore, would be to improve the Wildwood building and allow for multiple groups to repurpose the space at a fraction of the cost to build even one new center.

We understand the pressures on the operating and the capital budgets, and we can empathize with the concerns of Griesemer, Cathy Schoen, Andy Steinberg and others about paying for building improvements and utilities at Wildwood, but by saying we can’t afford to invest in these already-existing structures, are these town officials  also saying they don’t support providing adequate facilities and services for our seniors, our marginalized youth, and our multicultural residents?

And if not at Wildwood, where will these services be?

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3 thoughts on “Opinion: A Community Center: If Not At Wildwood, Where?

  1. It is short sighted to sell town land. Ever. We have multiple needs for the land and buildings now, as noted in the article above. But we also are not thinking about our climate future. Our Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness program outreach and report looked at our future in terms of expected climate impacts. One certain impact it listed is that within the next 10-20 years, Amherst is predicted to receive climate migrants – from the coast, from the south and from climate events around the world. Why will they be coming to Amherst? Because city folks will be looking for inland communities that offer the types of amenities to which they are accustomed. Amherst fits that bill. When that happens, we’ll need that land and those buildings for more schools, more public health services, more public safety services, more recreation and senior services, etc. Let’s not be short sighted. We will absolutely regret it later.

  2. At the District 2 meeting on May 23, Town Councilors were asked if they would commit to retaining the vacated elementary school for community reuse. Pat Deangelis and Ellisha Walker said Yes. Lynn Griesemer and Cathy Schoen basically said no. Andy Steinberg didn’t answer.

    I believe there are a number of Councilors who do support retaining the vacated school and repurposing it for community uses, such as a Senior Center, Youth Empowerment Center, etc. I look forward to hearing public statements from all Councilors, letting residents know what they support doing with the school building and site that is not selected for the new combined school. Feel free to comment on this post to let readers know where you stand.

    The Massachusetts School Building Authority actually requires the District/Town to provide information on “future use and/or demolition of the other school facility” in the next submission, which will be voted on by the Building Committee on June 24. So, it is past time that this discussion be brought forward at public meetings. The site selection vote will be June 13. I hope the Council will put this topic on their agenda for June 6.

    If, as appears to be the case from all of the letters shared recently, the public supports retaining and repurposing the vacated school, and there is a strong preference to site the new school at Fort River, the Council might want to consider that. Every vote possible will be needed next April to pass the debt exclusion override. Without a strong commitment to keep the other site, to invest in long-overdue repairs of the building, and to plan for a Senior Center, Youth Center, etc, support for the override risks being eroded. And I’m pretty sure that no one wants that.

  3. Adaptive re-use is “greener” than tearing down and disposing of either Wildwood or Fort River to build anew. I would guess also that fewer “greenbacks” will be needed to provide the needed space for all the local groups mentioned here. I would hope that the older Historic South Amherst school can be preserved for adaptive re-use by Amherst residents. Note that two of these buildings are fifty years old (Fort River a year or two younger) will fall under the current demolition delay by-law. Something needs to be done fast to make sure that these particular town buildings will be preserved in the “yet-to-be approved” new bylaw setting the age of significant properties at 75 years.

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