Located on the MacArthur Circle, the center was built in 1997 to serve Redbank, Brick Hill and other low income areas of South Portland’s west end. The building is 11,820 square feet, most of which is taken up by the gymnasium. The facility also houses a teen center with about 35 regular participants. The expansion would have added 500 square feet of storage – the site currently has none, with all equipment pushed to one side of the gym – as well as 1,600 community room, primarily for teen use.
Kevin Adams, director of parks, recreation and waterfront, said the space also could provide a new home to the Redbank Hub Resource Center, which operates off-site in a portable office trailer on Westbrook Street. The Hub bills itself as a place that that “provides many resources and is a place for partnership activities that promote the overall well-being of neighborhood families.”
Other planned additions included an IT room, and a supervisor’s office, along with rehabilitation to the HVAC equipment, bathrooms and kitchen.
“Right now that is lacking a lot of things, like a hood over the stove,” said Owens McCullough, vice president of engineering at Sebago Technics, the city’s contracted engineering firm, during a March 28 presentation to the council.
The project was originally planned to be funded through the Community Development Block Grant program, with an expected overall cost of $850,000. However, new preliminary cost estimates have pegged the total project at $1.37 million.
According to city Finance Director Greg L’Heureux, South Portland got CDBG funding for design services totaling $90,000 as part of the program’s 2016 allocation. It has also committed $189,901 from the 2017 CDBG allocation and applied for another $270,228 this year. L’Heureux said the city also has access to about $300,000 available left over unspent form other past CDBG projects. The plan had been to ask for a $490,000 draw from the city’s undesignated surplus fund, to be paid back with future CDBG grants, but L’Heureux said the future of that funding stream looks grim.
“The Trump administration has indicated they would like to terminate the CDBG program, so there’s kind of a cloud on the third leg of the funding for this project,” he said.
With that in mind, Assistant City Manager Josh Reny said the city’s CDBG committee, which vets applications for grant dollars, voted March 15 to re-allocate current and past dollars earmarked for the project to other infrastructure needs on the west end. City Manager Scott Morelli said specific projects would be chosen that comply with the city’s West End Master Plan.
Still, some city councilors, including Claude Morgan, said they were “willing to take the risk” of starting the project with an eye toward CDBG funding that might later fail to materialize.
“I’ve been doing municipal government for 20 years now and I have seen two presidencies that have vowed to crush the CDBG program, but we’ve only ever seen small incremental changes,” he said. “It’s still an important way of bringing home the bacon, which is why I think it survives.”
There also were practical reasons to stay the course, others said.
“I remind my fellow councilors, for every year you wait, the cost goes higher, it never goes lower,” said Councilor Maxine Beecher.
However, others felt the cost was more than the city can bear at this time.
“My concern is that the cost seems really, really big – unusually high,” said Councilor Eben Rose.
“I would like to see us going forward with this, but much of the work is modular,” Rose said, suggesting that kitchen improvements or bathroom renovations can be done independent of the building expansion.
“We absolutely owe it to the west end to commit to providing them a Class A facility that’s at least as good as the community center on Nelson Road,” said Councilor Linda Cohen, citing expected growth on the west end. “I’m either in this all the way, or I say let’s not do it at all.”
However, others felt the unknowns were too great, while the goals of completing aspects of the West End master plan should take precedence.
“I just felt like there wasn’t enough detail. Why are we doing this? Why is it so expensive? Will it really serve enough people for the money into it?” asked Mayor Patti Smith. “I think we should be really thoughtful about what we need. If there is a West End Plan happening, shouldn’t we allow that to happen? Maybe what we need is a great library on the west end?”