‘Terrific’ Norwalk Community Recreation Center would open in 2025
NORWALK, Conn. — The long-underused City building at 98 South Main St. is poised to become a Norwalk Community Recreation Center with a new gym and Recreation and Parks programs, in a $10.5 million plan advanced Thursday by the Common Council Finance Committee. It would hopefully open in two years.
Nearly $5.4 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) would go towards renovating the building, once the home of Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON) and the South Norwalk Community Center, if it gains full Council approval in a May 23 vote.
This will be combined with “mall money,” about $1.2 million in the fund created when General Growth Properties (GGP) dropped the hotel from its plan for The SoNo Collection, and a $1.2 million state grant for a total of $7.8 million for the project.
Then the City hopes to recover the $2 million federal grant awarded to the Riverbrook Regional YMCA. While the money was aimed at 98 South Main, Riverbrook is not legally obligated to spend it on the facility.
“The Mayor’s Office is working with Y to find a way that the money could be transferred to us somehow for this project,” Building and Facilities Manager Alan Lo said.
Depending on how that works out, the project is either $700,000 short or $2.7 million short, he said.
Finance Committee members unanimously moved the plan forward, though details were short.
“You don’t have all the information in front of you, because the intent originally was to go to the Land Use Committee and the Parks Committee,” Lo said. “I have developed a schedule of cost estimates, some conceptual plans from one of the architectural firms.”
Norwalk Recreation and Parks Director Robert Stowers has developed “very complete programming” plans and included operating expenses in what is “a very comprehensive proposal,” Lo said.
“It won’t be enough to cover the costs but we always think in terms of we got to generate some revenue from this from this facility,” Stowers said. “Over time it will grow, but it’s a start.”
It’s planned that the details will be presented June 7 at a joint meeting of the Land Use and Recreations & Parks Committees.
Norwalk Chief Financial Officer Henry Dachowitz had earlier spoken of the approaching deadlines for ARPA funds.
The City was awarded more than $39 million in ARPA funds, a form of COVID-19 relief, he said. Although the City planned to use $7 million from the ARPA pot, the budget balanced without it.
“One of the issues is that ARPA has some strict deadlines,” Dachowitz said. “We have to allocate the money by the end of this calendar year… the actual spending has to be done, I believe it’s, we have two more years.”
Stowers said the year-long study to create a Recreation and Parks master plan has resulted in a draft, on the verge of public discussion.
“The number one recommendation is for indoor recreation,” he said. He was therefore asked to come up with a program for 98 South Main, to include “various elements that would satisfy the public.”
It will be busy from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., maybe later on weekends, keeping teens off the streets, he said.
“A gym is very essential to a recreation center in South Norwalk,” Lo said, pegging that estimated cost at $3.7 million.
“We don’t always have the resources,” Stowers said. “… So, we have been partnering with third party providers, which has helped Norwalk tremendously to keep kids and youth off the street and keep them engaged in activities. But it comes a time when you have to face that, you know, we can’t continue to always depend on third party providers. I believe it’s the responsibility of a city to be responsible for their citizens recreation, and health and passive recreation.”
The City has worked with the Boys & Girls Club of Stamford to develop a plan for rooms, “for these particular activities, along with some big community spaces that the community could use for meetings, for various activities, rentals, birthday parties, what have you,” he said.
However, “It would probably be better for us to, in terms of operations, to sustain this building,” he said. “A third-party provider could help us with some capital maybe, but could not really over a long period of time sustain the operations.”
The administration thinks it has sufficient staffing to operate the facility once its built, Stowers said. “It’s a great addition to Norwalk, it will provide us with some indoor recreation and the added gym will be a blessing. And we just think it’s a wonderful, wonderful project … hopefully, one day, we maybe can add another more central community center.”
In October 2020, Riverbrook Regional YMCA, winner of a 2019 contract to redevelop the property, unveiled concepts for an updated facility in the storied building. But sometime last year the City terminated its agreement with Riverbook, after cost estimates came in higher than the nonprofit expected. According to Mayor Harry Rilling, Riverbrook had been struggling to raise the funds for the project even before costs escalated.
Yet Riverbrook is the named recipient of a $2 million federal grant meant for the South Norwalk building.
“We, the city and YMCA, is trying to work out with a solution to how the money can potentially be transferred to the city somehow,” Lo said Thursday. “Technically it’s a challenge.”
In February, Riverbrook leaders indicated that they had other plans.
The $2 million “will be used to the benefit the citizens and children of Norwalk through programming and partnerships with other local non-profits per the revised language which HUD approved,” Riverbrook Regional YMCA Chief Development Officer Jarred Barnes said in a statement.
He provided the HUD language: “The Riverbrook Regional YMCA will continue providing relevant and accessible programs and services by administering an inclusive plan for the children and families of Norwalk which includes program and infrastructure investments.”
In December 2021, Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff (D-25) announced a $1.2 million state grant “for the Norwalk YMCA to make renovations to its facility’s facade, landscaping, and outdoor common areas.”
In 2017, GGP agreed to pay $3.5 million to Norwalk in lieu of a hotel atop The SoNo Collection.
On Thursday, Dachowitz called it “great” that $5.4 million in ARPA money would go toward the renovation instead of capital bonding. The plan “sounds terrific.”
“Clearly, this is a large piece of the funding for the Norwalk Community Recreation Center renovation,” Finance Committee Chairman Greg Burnett (D-At Large) said.
Council member Nora Niedzielski-Eichner (D-At Large) called the plan “exciting,” though, “It is definitely a little strange to be sort of approving something with a little bit of a dearth of information, but I have great confidence in the what the team will put together.”
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