Community Center committee recommends using Finn School (if available)

The group representing a variety of interest groups agreed on the best path for future town facilities, with a big caveat.

Above: The Select Board was presented this week with concepts for how Finn School could be converted to a Community Center in the future, with some storage and offices for municipal departments. (image edited from presentation)

This week, the Community Center Exploration Committee released its findings.

The group’s recommended solution for meeting the Town’s long term facility needs (including for offices and recreational programming) was one that requires officials to wait and see for now.

While they determined that using Finn School is the best option, that is only if the town decides through other work that abandoning its use as a school makes sense. And that finding is still uncertain.

CCEC’ presented its recommendations to the Select Board on Tuesday night. They explained that they rejected other options for building brand new facilities, using facilities on Route 9, or pursuing a public-private partnership.

The large facility with spacious and flat parking areas was the best one for fitting the town’s needs needs for the next 30-50 years.

Chair Jason Malinowski was confident Finn could provide Recreation with a gym in good condition, space for programs and camp, and access to playgrounds and playing fields. It would also include a Senior Center. Design concepts showed potential for including rooms for programs and activities, fitness rooms, a nurse’s office a “Senior Daycare”, kitchenette/cafe, offices, and more.

For the Library, there were options of extra storage space, being fully moved there temporarily during a renovation project of their own, and/or even permanently relocating into the building if needed.

In addition there would be a lot of “shared spaces” for programming and events, plus room for municipal storage needs.

Proposed Finn Project - one possible design[Note: Although they shared design concepts, like the image right, they weren’t considered final. They expected a future committee would be charged with finalizing a design for the building’s use.]

Meanwhile, the Neary Building Committee, also chaired by Malinowski, is studying closing Finn. But it is currently only one of the possibilities they are considering for a renovation/construction project at Neary as they pursue match funding from the state.

Malinowski introduced the presentation on Tuesday night with the comment:

Unfortunately, everything we’re going to walk through tonight is probably going to sit on a shelf for about a year.

Given that a delay would be required, estimated costs were projections of what it would cost to build in 2028**. A consolidated project at Finn was estimated at about $14.7M.

The committee showed that to be a lower cost than completing separate projects for a new Senior Center, Recreation facility, and Senior Center, which would be closer to $100M. (Although their $28.6M projection for the Library was based on a new building – not expansion – and didn’t include matching grants.)

The Finn project figure covered “high intensity” renovations for the section dedicated to the Senior Center. Malinowski explained that is to make it more welcoming than simply repurposed old classrooms. It also includes low and moderate renovations in other areas, like replacing bathroom facilities currently scaled for use by little kids.

If they need to eliminate some fields close to the back of the school for extra parking, there could be an additional cost in building an additional field elsewhere. That could also depend on the Neary project, and how its fields will be potentially impacted.

The discussion also covered the potential impact of the Library pursuing its own, separate building project*. 

Malinowski noted that a different site being chosen for the library was unlikely, since the deed for the Library property restricts it to use for a Library only. But the Mass Building Library Commission requires libraries seeking grant funds to also investigate the cost and feasibility of building new facilities elsewhere before they can push for a renovation of their current building.

Still, Marguerite Landry, Select Board member and Chair of the Library Trustees, noted that in practice about 90% of MBLC grants are used for the expansion of existing buildings. CCEC member and Library Trustee Janet Maney noted that by coordinating projects, they could avoid waste. The Library won’t have to add as much public meeting space if there is a Community Center that will fit that need.

As for the timeline. . . the Neary Building committee is still in its Feasibility Study phase. They previously projected they would be entering a phase that includes selecting a model in fall 2024.

So, why did the committee pursue the community center work in advance of the Neary findings, Town Meeting’s vote on a potential Library project, and when the Town is beginning to study uses for 21 Highland Street?

The Select Board discussed on Tuesday, that there is an advantage to the overlapping studies on municipal building projects. Before asking voters to fund a large project at Neary, they hope to be able to present a comprehensive plan for the Town’s future building needs across the board and projected costs and impacts on taxes.

The community center research began to align with the study of potentially consolidating schools. In 2022, Malinowski advised the Select Board that a committee should be formed to look at the municipal needs, including the potential use of a school if it is decommissioned. He pointed out that if officials decide to ask the state to approve a building project that includes closing a school, they would need to clarify what they were doing with it and demonstrate community support.

At that time, based on findings from prior committees’ work studying the schools and Town space needs, a main focus was Woodward School. Later, he learned that the Mass School Building Authority (MSBA) believed Woodward was too new for them to support its closing. So, the direction changed to exploring Finn School, which MSBA indicated would be fine to close (if it is found to make sense).

That appeared to also be a benefit for resolving tensions around the varied interests that a Community Center is meant to benefit. There had been a lot of “constructive criticism” of the original concept. One big criticism had been perceived parking constraints for seniors. The Woodward building is uphill from its main lot.

Upon questioning, Malinowski confirmed that if the Town renovates Finn for a community center, it wouldn’t be feasible to convert back into a school if the unforeseen population needs demand it. He stated that the Neary committee’s job is to address issues including population spikes before they recommend decommissioning a school.

Malinowski also noted that CCEC’s work really focused on hashing out how the Senior Center, Recreation, and Library could use the facility. They didn’t focus as much on the municipal offices.

Select Board Member Al Hamilton said he would like for more thought to be given to incorporating Town offices, to free up other buildings. He believed that selling existing buildings should be part of the plan for paying for a project.

He specified one property he would like to sell off as Cordaville Hall, which is currently used for the Senior Center and some Town offices. Member Kathy Cook indicated Hamilton was also thinking of 21 Highland Street. (The committee being formed to study that property’s best use was prompted by outcry when the board discussed selling or developing the property.)

The concepts shown for Finn did include facilities for Southborough Youth & Family Services. Not for the first time, Cook stated that the Town already has an a different plan for moving that department out of 21 Highland Street. She didn’t specify what that was. [Note: It may have been mentioned in a prior public meeting, during a discussion I missed.]

The CCEC is expected to disband soon. A new committee will likely replace it in the future to take on next steps. According to Malinowski, members have been documenting details related to the interest groups they represent so that future members will be prepared to take up the mantle. (They will also be pointed to the presentation and discussion.)

Select Board member Sam Stivers summed up for the board the hope that the great work the committee did to tee up a potential project, means a future project can move forward quickly when needed.

You can view the presentation materials here. But it’s worth noting that you may misunderstand some details in them if you don’t also watch the presentation. (Hamilton quipped to Malinowski that his blood pressure spiked when he read and misinterpreted the materials prior to the discussion.) You can find the discussion on video here.

*The Library Trustees have advocated that additional space is needed for Library resources and programs. The windows to apply for matching grants through the state are apparently infrequent. Last summer, the Select Board approved the Trustees starting a process to apply for funding in the window opening this year, in case a project is determined to be necessary. They have been soliciting public feedback on space needs. The next step will be an Article at Town Meeting asking for support for a potential design phase. (Stay tuned for more details.)

**The presentation referred to 2027 construction costs. Malinowski stated that it turned out to be 2028 figures. He did acknowledge the costs are just projections and future pricing can change.

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