NEWINGTON - Once and for all, there will be a new Town Hall. And a new community center, after voters overwhelmingly approved a $28.8 million rebuild of Town Hall and the Mortensen Community Center last Tuesday.
The referendum captured 70 percent of the vote. This landslide came as a surprise and relief to town officials, who have been back and forth to the drafting board for over a decade.
Building Committee Chairman Joe Harpie’s initial reaction to the news was “relief, joy and pride.”
“It’s a victory for all of Newington,” he said. “I’m surprised it was so wide a margin. Thank you to those who voted and for people who didn’t support it, we’re going to double down and make sure the end product is something everyone can respect and make use of.”
Harpie led the most recent group in planning the renovation, along with architect Quisenberry-Arcari-Malik and construction manager Downes Construction.
A half-dozen other committees failed to earn the public’s confidence in their designs. Each worked hard and made its own contribution to the project, but residents would not be easily impressed.
Built in 1950 and expanded in 1955 and 1971, Town Hall has been deteriorating for quite awhile. Longtime resident Gary Bolles remembered cautioning the town in the early 1970s that building’ systems needed to be updated.
The last design brought to voters in 2014 failed by a 5-1 margin. It called for a $30 million renovation to Town Hall and a total reconstruction of the community center in Mill Pond Park. Post-referendum polling and focus groups revealed wide opposition to the center’s rebuild, especially in the park.
A new building committee came to be and in spring 2015, two more plans were on the table. Put forward this time was a $37 million new town hall and community center and alternatively, a $44 million renovation with additions. Both received negative feedback that summer, leading the town back to square one once again.
When a scaled-back, $34 million plan for a building ten percent smaller failed to earn support at another hearing that October, Town Council disbanded the committee.
In 2016, a newly formed team determined the most cost-effective option was to demolish and start from scratch. The plan that would receive more support than any previous featured a 72,960-square-foot town Hall and community center. This proposal would not require a tax increase.
Parks and Recreation Department headquarters will boast two gymnasiums, a preschool wing, basketball courts and other activity areas.
Town Hall offices will be divided accordingly, with separate entrances for the transition academy, human services and town business. New plumbing, heating and cooling systems, as well as handicapped accommodations, will make the facility accessible, comfortable and workable.
If all goes as planned, construction is expected to begin next summer, with a fall 2019 completion.
“We have to consult with the staff and check the general fiscal climate to determine the best timing to go into the bond market,” Mayor Roy Zartarian said. “We have to keep our finger on Moody’s for any changes in our bond rating. It’s excellent right now, but could change as Connecticut towns are downgraded.”
Erica Schmitt can be reached at 860-801-5097, or firstname.lastname@example.org.