STAMFORD – It was a no-brainer.
City representatives approved a $150,000 state grant that will be used to devise a plan for improving the Lathon Wider Community Center, an institution vital to the South End.
Still, the unanimous vote raised a question, and a strong sentiment.
The question came after Grants Officer Anita Carpenter told the Board of Representatives’ Fiscal Committee that, even though the administration was asking for the board to accept the grant, as city ordinances require, the money was already spent.
“Why is this coming to us after the fact?” asked city Rep. Sean Boeger, the Fiscal Committee co-chair.
The grant was awarded in 2019 “and it just never made it through the appropriation process,” Carpenter said. “We just recently discovered that, so the work is currently happening. A consulting firm has been hired and they are doing a repurposing study. That is the status.”
The grant came during the administration of former Mayor David Martin, who was defeated by current Mayor Caroline Simmons in the 2021 mayoral race. Land Use Bureau Chief Ralph Blessing told the committee that the $150,000 was awarded shortly after the 2018 South End Neighborhood Study recommended creating a “civic campus” on the site of the Henry Street community center. The South End is home to many financially struggling residents who live in the shadow of Harbor Point, a development of luxury apartment high-rises.
The goal of the South End Neighborhood Study was to evaluate what services are offered at Lathon Wider and how they can be improved; whether programs need to be expanded; and how the space can be better used, Blessing said.
“There also are some issues with the condition of the building,” he said.
The community center was a school a century ago, and one task of the study is to identify areas of the building that need renovating, and where money may be found to do the work, Blessing said.
That’s when sentiments were ignited.
One but not the other
“Seeing this come forward is absolutely infuriating,” Boeger said. “I am going to vote for this because I believe in community centers … but the fact that this administration is … wanting to expand a South End community center … when grant money is available to also refurbish the Glenbrook Community Center, is absolutely infuriating to me.”
If the Simmons administration “can expand services in the South End, that’s great. We should do that,” Boeger said, “but every single part of the city deserves services like that, including Glenbrook.”
Simmons last year tried to sell the Glenbrook Community Center, also a century-old school building, to a private developer who wanted to make it into 51 affordable housing units. The Crescent Street community center was closed during the coronavirus pandemic.
After an outcry from Glenbrook residents who said they wanted their community center reopened, and it became apparent that the Board of Representatives would not approve the sale, Simmons withdrew her proposal last October.
In doing so, Simmons issued a statement saying the “administration does not have any immediate plans” for the Glenbrook Community Center property.
Simmons’ decision came as dozens of Connecticut towns were receiving millions of dollars in grants, much of it for community centers, from a $875 million state Community Investment Fund launched last year.
Why not apply?
City representatives and neighborhood activists told CT Examiner in September that they have approached the administration more than once to urge Simmons to apply for money to reopen the Glenbrook Community Center.
They said the fund director told them that the Glenbrook center qualifies for construction funding plus a grant of up to $250,000 to cover a feasibility study, project plan, conceptual drawings, and other costs of renovation.
The elected officials and neighborhood residents said Simmons or members of her staff told them she would not be seeking money for Glenbrook.
Boeger reiterated that during the Fiscal Committee meeting.
“The mayor won’t lift a single finger to try to apply for grants for the Glenbrook Community Center,” Boeger said. “She wants to have her personal way with the fiasco that happened several months ago.”
City Rep. Virgil de la Cruz said communities need community centers.
“Having lost one in my district, I can say that the vacuum that it has left has made me appreciate the services that are rendered out of these community centers at a price that the city simply couldn’t afford,” de la Cruz said.
City Rep. Carmine Tomas represents Glenbrook, a diverse, densely populated neighborhood where incomes fall below the citywide average.
“I hope something can be done for Glenbrook,” Tomas said during the meeting. “All community centers throughout Stamford are necessary.”
Lathon Wider, for example, offers school readiness, preschool and child development programs; the Stamford Police Department’s Mighty Might Basketball League; a branch of the Ferguson Library; and many other services.
‘It defies reason’
Tomas noted that the South End Neighborhood Study calls for a K-8 school to be built alongside the Lathon Wider Community Center, and asked Blessing whether that’s the plan.
Blessing said he didn’t know.
Contacted after the meeting, Simmons’ director of policy and legislative affairs, Lauren Meyer, said the administration “can’t speak for the intent of the inclusion of a potential school at that location.”
However, Meyer said, “we can confirm that we have no intention of utilizing Lathon Wider as anything other than a community center.”
Asked about plans for the Glenbrook Community Center, Meyer did not reply.
City Rep. Anabel Figueroa, who is also a member of the state House of Representatives, is among those who have urged the Simmons administration to reopen the Glenbrook center.
“One of the priorities from the state is to do these types of projects. It’s just a matter of applying,” Figueroa said Friday. “We support the South End, of course, but at the same time we have to ask, why not go for both community centers?”
Laurie Doig, a Glenbrook resident and member of a neighborhood group called Save Our Center, said Friday the administration’s stance makes no sense.
“It defies reason that the administration would so actively pursue the grant for the South End while we have been waiting so long for attention to restoring the Glenbrook center,” Doig said. “We have given the administration information about grants and they have brushed it aside. It would be a win for the mayor’s office and a win for Glenbrook. I can’t understand why it’s not happening.”
Figueroa said the message from the mayor is clear.
“It doesn’t matter how much you ask, they are going to dance around the question because they have no intention of reopening the Glenbrook Community Center,” Figueroa said. “The only way to reopen that community center is to get another mayor in two years.”
Boeger said he expects an expanded discussion of the matter when the full Board of Representatives meets on Nov. 8.