Public Outcry Against Community Center Move
NEWINGTON - With the Sept. 9 Town Hall renovation referendum approaching, Newington residents continued to voice opposition to the proposal--to move the Mortensen Community Center to space at Mill Pond Park--as the Town Council discussed information to be included in a project brochure.

       The group of residents, some wearing “Save Mill Pond Park” T-shirts, filled the downstairs meeting room beyond capacity, prompting a move to the building’s auditorium July 22. While there have been concerns about the project’s cost--around $30 million to renovate the existing building and construct a new community center--much of the backlash regarding the proposal has centered on Mill Pond Park.

       “I love outdoor recreation and I love our town parks,” said Newington resident Leigh Grande during the public comments segment. “I do not think we’re in need of dance studios and a fancy atrium. A fitness center can privately be sought out.”

       Moving the Mortensen Community Center to the Willard Avenue side of Mill Pond Park will eliminate the park’s soccer fields.

       “Those soccer fields bring hundreds and hundreds of people into the center of town,” said Newington resident Sara Jorgensen. “[Visitors] are shopping at our stores, eating at our restaurants. I hope, for my kids’ sake, those fields stay there.”

       Other concerns are regarding open space preservation. Some residents who spoke during the public comments pointed to the town’s 2020 Plan--an advisory document that outlines, amongst other things, guidelines for land use within the context of the town’s long term development and conservation strategies.

       “The proposal to put that building in the park is in direct violation of the 2020 plan,” said Newington resident Gary Bolles. “This 2020 plan was formalized to protect that space.”

       Long-term plans for the site call for the pool and bathhouses along the banks of Mill Pond to be removed and replaced by an indoor aquatics facility, Deputy Mayor and Committee Chairman Clarke Castelle wrote in a statement presented at a Council meeting weeks ago.

       “The central area of the park around Mill Pond could thereby revert back to its more natural state,” Castelle wrote.

       Not everyone who attended the meeting, however, came out to oppose the proposal. Marc Finkelstein, Chairman of the Board of Education and a town resident for 43-years, compared the project to a necessary technological upgrade.

       “In 2014, you can probably get by without a computer,” Finkelstein said. But it’s 2014, and I think if you’re living in the past, you’re not preparing for the future. That’s what I liken this town hall to: A non-digital society.”

       For project proponents, the obsolete model is a town hall building with electrical, mechanical and plumbing issues. That’s what prompted the move to renovate, but the Town Hall Project Building Committee saw an opportunity to reconfigure the building around an atrium that would make each department more easily accessible within a centralized area.

       The Mortensen Community Center is also past its prime, Castelle said. The new recreation center, if approved, will have two basketball courts that can double as a space for indoor soccer games. The existing Mortensen Center only has one court, which Castelle has said has been a problem for the town’s travel basketball program.

       “Nine out of 11 towns have two gyms,” Castelle said during the meeting. “Ten out of 11 field two teams per age group. Newington is the only town with only one team per age group.”

       Ultimately, the Sept. 9 referendum will be the judge, said Mayor Stephen Woods.

       “The reason we go out to vote is if you don’t like it, the project won’t get done,” Woods said to the residents during the meeting. “I’ll fully accept if it passes or fails. If it fails I’ll go back to work, because we need a new town hall and community center, but it’s up to you.”