By MICHAEL KITCH, LACONIA DAILY SUN
MOULTONBOROUGH — As Town Meeting approaches, voters remain sharply divided over a proposal to build a community center at a cost of $6.5 million, which is recommended by majorities of four-to-one by both the Board of Selectmen and Budget Committee.
The 20,000-square-foot facility would be built on a lot in the center of the village adjacent to Moultonborough Academy, known as the Adele Taylor property, which is owned by the town and school district. The building would include an 11,000-square-foot gymnasium, commercial kitchen and multipurpose rooms to serve the social, educational and recreational interests of residents, both year-round and seasonal, of all ages. The annual cost of operating the facility is estimated at $162,050.
Although there has been consistent support for the project among younger residents, most of them with children, it has met with stiff opposition from those who insist that the scope and cost of the project is unwarranted in a town where the general population is aging and the school enrollment is declining. Opponents claim that the demographics of the town render a community center unnecessary while supporters counter that investing in the amenity will draw younger residents and foster a more balanced demographic.
"If we want to attract new residents, young families," wrote John Malm, "then we need to build and promote certain amenities that appeal to that group."
The prospect of constructing a community center has been on the agenda for years, but gathered momentum in 2013 when the Blue Ribbon Commission on Community Facilities and Services recommended "development of a facility that includes an indoor gymnasium, Recreation Department office, program and storage space" on or near school property. At Town Meeting that same year, 65 percent of voters endorsed the recommendation and the next year an appropriation of $17,500 for a site study was approved by a majority of 61 percent.
The Capital Improvement Program Committee rejected the the recommendation of the Blue Ribbon Commission in 2014, concluding that had been overtaken by the aging and shrinking demographic of the town.
That same year, a team from the University of New Hampshire completed a feasibility study intended "to settle the issue," which recommended that the town work closely with the school district, nearby towns and private organizations to expand recreational opportunities and sustain social programs, but also draft a warrant article to develop an indoor recreation facility and gymnasium.
Selectmen Paul Punturieri, who chaired the UNH Feasibility Study Committee and supports the project, described the community center as a multi-generational facility with space for programs for senior citizens, like Senior Meals, Women's Club and Men's Breakfast as well as summer day camps after-school programs for children and adolescents.
At the same time, Punturieri said the project would further the aim of the Village Vision Committee to foster economic development by "the adaptive reuse or repurposing of existing historic structures and the addition of compatible new structures in order to create a diverse offering of quality retail and housing options, public gathering places, and municipal services." The town hall, schools, library and community center all in close proximity would resemble the "vital town center" envisioned by the committee's report, which was endorsed by Town Meeting last year.
Finally, the gymnasium would overcome a lack of indoor recreation space identified by three studies in the past five years that found that the two gymnasiums at Moultonborough Academy and Moultonborough Central School are used to capacity by the schools and Recreation Department.
Alan Ballard, who serves on the Advisory Budget Committee and the Capital Improvements Program Committee, is far from convinced. He said that the proposal reflects a "build it and they will come fantasy," which is belied by the town's aging population and diminishing school enrollment, and foresees the community center will become a "white elephant."
Challenging the assumption that the school gymnasiums are used to capacity, Ballard said that with some modifications to the multi-purpose room at Moultonborough Academy and more efficient scheduling there would be sufficient gymnasium space at appropriate times to meet the demand.
"Scheduling is a disaster," he said flatly.
Noting that the gymnasium will include a walkway around the playing surface, he doubted it would be much used since only a handful of seniors regularly walk together.
Ballard questioned whether less expensive alternatives have been thoroughly considered. Dismissing the need for another gymnasium, he suggested that the space required for social and educational activities, especially those intended for senior citizens, could be provided at the site of the Lions Club on Old Route 109. He said that if the existing facility could not be renovated, it could be demolished and a new building constructed for much less than the estimated cost of the community center.
Ballard, whose professional career includes banking and real estate, discounted the notion that development of a community center would affect the demographic profile of the town.
"People looking at homes want to know two things," he said, "that the schools are good and the taxes are law. They don't move to Moultonborough to be near an indoor recreation center."
The warrant article proposes borrowing $6,491,000 for the project. The debt service would add an estimated 16 to 29 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation to the property tax rate annually depending on the term of the bond. The annual operating cost of the facility would add another 6 cents to the property tax rate. As a bond issue, the article will be voted by secret ballot and require a two-thirds majority to succeed. The vote will be taken by Town Meeting at Moultonborough Academy on Saturday, March 12, beginning with the School District meeting at 9 a.m.