STAMFORD – In the last year, dozens of Connecticut towns have received millions of dollars in state grants, and many are using the money to build community centers.
The Town of Stratford, for example, got $2.4 million that it will spend on renovating the South End Community Center, a neighborhood mainstay that has operated in an old factory building for generations. The money will help restore the building inside and out, and expand programs that will give it “a new lease on its long life as a bulwark of support” in that working-class neighborhood, according to the grant award.
The Town of Hamden got $5.4 million from the state to help turn a long-vacant middle school into a “community campus.” The campus will house child care and senior services, social services, a food pantry, an arts and cultural center, a library, and a health and wellness center. The town and federal government will also fund the project, which will cost a total of $59 million.
The City of New London will put its $7.2 million state grant, plus $2 million in federal funding, toward a $40 million community and recreation center, which city officials said “will change the lives of many for generations to come.” The city will contribute $30 million to the project, which will include a swimming pool, gym, classrooms, lounge, indoor track, and other amenities, and serve as headquarters for the recreation department and youth affairs.
The dedication of significant resources to community centers is not surprising. In the three years since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, government leaders, urban planners and others nationwide have said that community-centered places are antidotes to city problems.
They say such places offer human connection in a virtual world; support social cohesion in a time of political dissension; and counteract loneliness. They help people feel attached to where they live, solve community problems, and restore trust in institutions.
But, in Stamford, supporters of the Glenbrook Community Center, which closed during the pandemic, say they are having no luck convincing Mayor Caroline Simmons to reopen it using a grant from the state Community Investment Fund, which the legislature launched last year to dole out $875 million to struggling communities through 2027.
You can run on it
Resurrection of the Glenbrook Community Center has become a focus of campaigns in Stamford’s District 7, where Democrat Christina Strain and Republican Mike Battinelli are vying for an open seat on the Board of Representatives.
Strain said it helped her win the close Sept. 12 Democratic primary, which came down to a recount.
“I think it put me over the top – my opponent was for selling the community center,” said Strain, who defeated incumbent city Rep. Bianca Shinn. “This building is historic and beautiful. It’s the grande dame of Glenbrook. If I’m elected, I will do everything I possibly can to save it and reopen it as a community center again.”
It was the No. 1 issue raised while canvassing during the primary, said Strain and Laurie Doig, a Glenbrook resident and member of a neighborhood group called Save Our Center.
“I was at the poll from morning to night during the primary, and I went door to door with Christina when she was getting signatures,” Doig said.
Strain was not endorsed by the Democratic Party and petitioned her way onto the primary ballot.
“We got most of the signatures from Glenbrook people telling us, ‘We want a community center,’” Doig said.
Battinelli said the same about his Board of Representatives run this year, and his campaign for a District 27 state Senate seat last year.
“It’s what gets me in when I knock doors. Household after household says, ‘We have to reopen the community center,’” Battinelli said.
It’s tough for a Republican to win in heavily Democratic Stamford – his Senate campaign was unsuccessful – but the Glenbrook Community Center is a bipartisan issue, Battinelli said.
“Christina and I are on the same wavelength about it. No matter who ends up winning this Board of Reps race, we will go back to the administration to get the community center reopened,” he said.
It will be an uphill climb.
The mayor wants housing
Simmons last year proposed selling the city-owned Glenbrook Community Center to a private developer at a bargain price so the building could be converted to 51 units of affordable housing, along with 3,000 square feet of community space.
Residents and city representatives fought back, saying that would not come close to the 16,400 square feet offered in the fully functioning community center. Simmons said the city needs affordable housing, but residents and representatives said the city – particularly dense, diverse Glenbrook, where incomes fall below the citywide average – also needs community services.
They described a need for day care, pre-school, after-school, summer and sports programs for kids; dance, music, art and exercise classes; activities for seniors; and meeting space for recovering alcoholics, civic and social organizations, and more.
Opponents of Simmons’ housing plan said she failed to recognize the need for the services provided at the center; undervalued the price of the Crescent Street property for the developer; agreed to apartment rents that weren’t truly affordable; misrepresented the cost of reopening the community center; and unfairly characterized opposition to the sale as prejudiced against tenants who might live in the housing units.
During a contentious neighborhood meeting last year, members of the Simmons administration said, without documentation, that refurbishing the center would cost $5 million to $6 million, even though a detailed 2020 building assessment commissioned by the city set the cost at $1.3 million.
Simmons said the units would provide “workforce housing” for teachers, nurses and firefighters, but federal rules dictate that tenants for such projects be chosen by lottery, based on income, and cannot be limited to Stamford residents.
Last October, after a three-month battle and ultimate realization that the Board of Representatives would not approve the sale of the community center, Simmons withdrew her proposal.
A meeting in May
Democratic state Rep. Anabel Figueroa, who is also a member of the Board of Representatives with constituents who live near the Glenbrook Community Center, said she set up a meeting with Simmons, elected state officials, and a residents’ group called Save Our Center four months ago.
The topic was the grant money the state was giving out under the Community Investment Fund, administered by the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development, Figueroa said. The meeting included Matt Pugliese, director of the Community Investment Fund, Figueroa said.
The state is giving the money out in rounds, and the deadline for round three of the grant applications was June 30, according to a letter Save Our Center member Miriam Kliewe sent to the mayor.
The meeting did not go well, Figueroa said this week.
“I came out with the impression that Mayor Simmons had no intention of applying for the money,” Figueroa said. “She is fully aware as a mayor and as a former state representative that the money is there, but I do not know why she has not applied. I don’t know if she still intends to sell the building for affordable housing, but I think it’s a shame that we are not seeking grants, knowing the money is there.”
Puliese told the group that the Glenbrook Community Center qualifies not only for construction funding but also for a $250,000 grant to cover a feasibility study, project plan, conceptual drawings, or other cost of launching the renovation and operation of a community center, Kliewe said.
“We wanted the initial $250,000 grant to do a study and, once it’s done, we can say we need this much money to renovate the building,” Kliewe said. “But, to the GCC group, it felt like the mayor was not interested in pursuing a grant. It’s surprising that the administration is not even looking for free money. We know they know how to apply because they already got grants from the fund, and we can apply for as many as we want.”
Grants already gotten
According to the state’s website for the Community Investment Fund, Stamford has been awarded two grants so far.
The city received $1.1 million to improve pedestrian safety on the West Side by reducing speeding, adding crosswalks and bump-outs, planting trees, and improving bus stops. The West Side was chosen because it is the neighborhood with the highest rate of pedestrian crashes in Stamford, according to the grant award paperwork.
The city also received a grant of nearly $2.5 million to build 39 affordable housing units on Stillwater Avenue, another West Side project. It will include one-, two- and three-bedroom units and ground-floor office space to house the headquarters of the Pacific House homeless shelter and case management services for tenants.
Simmons’ office said Tuesday the Glenbrook Community Center will not go the way of the two West Side projects.
“At this time, the administration has no plans to apply for grant funding for the 35 Crescent Street property,” Simmons’ special assistant, Lauren Meyer, said in an email. “For any future plans to move forward, there needs to be agreement and consensus among the leadership of the Planning Board, Board of Finance, and Board of Representatives, as any viable plan would need to go before and be approved by each board.”
The Glenbrook Community Center operated in an old stone school building on Crescent Street for decades. It closed in 2019 with the onset of COVID-19.
“I don’t understand it,” Figueroa said. “We are lacking all kinds of programs in Stamford – day care, recreation, after-school. This would benefit not only Glenbrook but all communities in that area, which has no community center.”
Kliewe said it’s difficult to fathom.
“We can actually get this done, but for some reason we’re not doing it,” she said.
The grants are released in rounds. Three rounds of funding have already been awarded. The fourth begins Oct. 15.
The issue isn’t going away, Strain said. She and Battinelli are running on it ahead of the Nov. 7 municipal election.
“People want the community center back because it’s the only one we have. If it’s turned into apartments or they knock it down, we will never have it again,” Strain said. “We don’t want it to rot away like the Hunt building on Courtland Avenue, where the toilet on the second floor fell into the first floor because the city let it go for so long. They let things rot away and then they say, ‘We can’t save it,’ and they tear it down.”
It’s called “planned obsolescence,” Battinelli said, and Stamford has a history of it.
“We’re the second-biggest city in Connecticut, and we won’t open a community center when all these smaller towns are doing it, because the mayor just wants housing. But what about quality of life?” Battinelli said. “We need preschool and after-school programs, programs for seniors – so many things – but they just won’t open their eyes.”