2018-08-09 / Front Page

Future of center is on the table

By Abigail Worthing
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD – As the Community Center Ad Hoc Committee continues its research into the value of the J. Richard Martin Community Center it is relying on tenants of the building to identify true benefits of the center.

Following the failure of one of the building’s boilers in August 2017, there was debate regarding the future of the center during an Oct. 17 city council meeting. While the meeting concluded with the approval of $40,000 to approve the short term boiler fix, there was conversation among councilors as to whether the century old building is worth the money required to fix the myriad of problems presented in a December 2005 study conducted by Oak Park Associates. An estimated $5 million is needed in renovations for the building to meet code. The high price point and discourse among councilors over the best course of action for the center prompted the formation of the ad hoc committee in January of this year.

The J. Richard Martin Center opened in 1888 as a public high school, transitioned into a middle school, and then lay dormant before becoming the community center. Recreation Director Carl Walsh said it is hard to find an exact date as to when the building officially became the community center, but he would guess around the mid-1990s. Now the 130-year-old building hosts a number of activities on a daily basis, year round, as well as houses the offices for organizations that provide services to the community, such as Meals on Wheels, adult education and the recreation department. Included in the 43,000-square-foot building are a gymnasium, classrooms, kitchen and a small auditorium. The gym floor was renovated in September 2017 for $8,782.

During a Monday, Aug. 6 committee meeting at the community center, Chairman and Ward 5 Councilor Victoria Foley led a discussion over a survey sent to tenants of the building. The survey was designed to garner information about the contributions/ impact the center has on the organizations that operate in the building. The council was concerned that of the roughly 25 organizations at the center, only five had returned completed surveys: AARP Tax-Aide Northern York County, Army Wounded Warrior Program, the La Kermesse Franco Americaine, Meals on Wheels and Sexual Assault Response Services of Southern Maine. The committee especially expressed concern over the lack of a survey responses from the Biddeford School Department’s Adult Education Program, as it is the largest organization within the center.

Questions on the survey ranged from fiscal and practical, asking tenants to identify any monetary contributions or improvements they have made to the building, what services they offer and mission statements, as well as the contributions they make to the center and community. As none of the tenants pay rent, the center functions on $211,193 in annual support from the city, as well as facility fees and revenue from community members that rent space for events.

The La Kermesse board said in its responses that it had contributed $25,000 in 1996 to the community center elevator fund in order for the center to obtain an occupancy permit. For community contributions, the La Kermesse board has hosted the festival for 36 years, and also provides holiday decor for area parks and Main Street. While some respondents had made no contributions to the building itself, they instead said they make contributions to the community. The Army Wounded Warrior Program said it provides counseling and service to veterans, and Sexual Assault Response Services of Southern Maine provides aid to those who have experienced sexual violence. Meals on Wheels stated in its response that it provide meals to 205 people each week.

While Foley said she was pleased with the answers from those who responded, it was clear that another effort would need to be made to garner sufficient information about the building. It was decided that direct phone calls will be made to encourage those who haven’t, to send in responses by Aug. 14, so the committee can have a broader discussion at its Aug. 20 meeting.

“We need to let them know that this information is important,” Foley said. “We’ve talked previously about the possibility of charging a small amount of rent, but we need feedback from the tenants as to how that would affect them, where their finances stand.”

The committee will host a public listening session, tentatively scheduled for Sept. 18, where tenants and members of the public will be able to talk about the center. It was proposed that the meeting begin with an informational presentation on the value and of the center, as to give more scope to residents.

“I didn’t realize how much was offered here, and I’m sure other people feel the same,” said Ward 1 Councilor and committee member Michael Swanton.

“This meeting will be everyone’s chance to speak their mind about the center. They can come in and say ‘we love the center and here is why it’s important,’ or ‘I hate the center and here’s why you should tear it down,” Foley said. “It’ll be a good opportunity to hear from everyone.”

Contact Staff Writer Abigail Worthing at news@inthecourier.com.

FMI

Community Organizations that use this facility include:
La Kermesse Franco Americaine
Biddeford School Department Adult Education
SARSSM
AARP Tax Service
Biddeford Wounded Heroes Program
Ross Center
50+ Club
Meals on Wheels
Girl Scouts of America Troop 1126
Adult Sports Leagues
After School Cub Care
Mad Science of Maine
Nation Guard
AA
Biddeford High School Cheering
Biddeford Soccer Club
Bidderford Youth Football
Biddeford LAX
Caring Unlimited
Daisies Troop
Maine Behavioral Health
People Ready
Project Sunrise
Red Hats
Special Olympic Training
Volleyball Unlimited
Tiny Tigers Parent/Child Play Days
Safari Summer Camps
Outdoor Summer Bonanza Summer Camp
Counselor in Training Summer Camp
Gentle Chair Yoga
Martial Arts Program
River Jam Dash To The Sea
Men’s Volleyball League
Coed Softball League
Men’s Softball League
Pickleball Drop In
Pre-K Soccer
Kinder Soccer
Grades 1-6 Soccer
Grades 1-6 Field Hockey
Flag Football
Assorted Adult Trips

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