Summit Council Unanimously Supports Proposal to Expand, Renovate Community Center

Summit Mayor Ellen Dickson presents a proclamation naming Friday, April 25, as Arbor Day in the city to Christina Amundson, chair of the Summit Shade Tree Advisory Committee. Credits: Bob Faszczewski

SUMMIT, NJ - A proposed rehabilitation plan for the Summit Community Center that would add an estimated 11,600 square feet of new space and renovate about 8,000 square feet of existing space, with a price tag of $5.61 million, was given unanimous support by the Summit Common Council on Tuesday, on the condition that a maximum of $4.5 million of city funds would be used for the project and the remainder would be raised through partnerships of private and public entities.

After speaker after speaker came to the podium and detailed the center's many problems, extolled the virtues of the Department of Community Programs (DCP) staff, and expressed the support for the expansion and renovation of the facility -- which chiefly serves the city’s youth and senior citizen programs -- all members of the governing body threw their support behind the more extensive of two plans put forth by the David Rosen consulting firm.

A less extensive plan that would have renovated about 8,000 square feet of existing space and created only about 6,800 square feet of new space had a price tag of $3.7 million.

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About half the governing body members, however, said they would like to see private or other governmental entities come up with some of the funding for the renovation of the facility, which was built in 1954 and had no major renovations done to it until 2002, when the DCP moved its offices into the facility.  The resolution finally adopted by the council, which was introduced by Councilman-at-Large Gregory Drummond, reflected the governing body’s support of a combination of public and private funding for the project.

Council Finance chairman Mike McTernan, the father of children who have made extensive use of the center over the years, said, “You would have to be blind not to see that the recreation center needs a complete overhaul.”

McTernan noted, however, that projects on the city’s capital plan list are worth about $96 million in total and, although the community center renovations are needed, people still need to be able to afford to live in the Hilltop City.

He added that the current gymnasium has a number of safety issues, and he hated to see senior citizens forced to wear hats and gloves because portions of the center could not be heated properly.

However, the finance chairman noted that the cost of a new gymnasium would amount to about $416 a square foot, adding he would like the council to approve the less expensive plan, and a portion of the cost of the more expensive plan, while calling upon the community to raise funds privately to pay for the remainder.

Although favoring the more expansive plan, Second Ward Councilman Richard Madden said he would like to see the council “sharpen its pencils” on the cost and try to approach Union County, and local businesses and individuals to raise the remainder of the funding.

Council president Robert Rubino Jr. said, “If we do anything, I think we should do the right thing.”

He said, however, he had spoken with Union County Freeholder Chairman Christopher Hudak and there was a chance the county might be willing to help with funds from county open space and historic preservation accounts to aid in the community center renovations.

Council general services committee chairman Albert Dill, Jr., under whose purview the department of community programs falls, said, however, that, over the years, he had seen major renovations of the center put off every time it had been brought up.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Dill said, there was a proposal to build a separate youth center next to the fire headquarters, and the Wilson School gymnasium was neglected until it was torn down to make way for the primary center.

The new gymnasium, he added, would not only be for youth, it would be used by all age groups in the city, noting that many neighboring communities have separate senior citizen buildings while Summit only was proposing to upgrade its facilities for youth and seniors in the same building.

Second Ward Councilwoman Sandra Lizza agreed, adding a renovated center would help bring all city age groups closer together and it made no sense to build a separate facility elsewhere in Summit.

Summit Mayor Ellen Dickson said the city should vigorously pursue offering naming rights to help finance a portion of the renovations costs.

Outlining the history of the center, city community programs director Judith Leblein Josephs noted the facility’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems always had issues and the building’s original heating system still was in use.

In 2010, she noted, an energy efficiency study showed that the facility’s energy use was 57.5 percent higher than comparable buildings, and in 2012 the center’s hot water heater split and flooded the basement.

Josephs added that members of the public appearing at public input sessions in 2012 had supported adding an expanded gymnasium to the renovation plans.

She said there were safety concerns for both players and spectators due to the small size of the current gymnasium.

The director also pointed out that the expansion would not result in additional staff and programs at the center all were funded by user fees.

Noting the center was already at capacity, community programs board presiding officer Jamie Collucci said the renovation was a chance for current residents to “leave their mark” for many generations to come.

TryCAN president Eileen Forman noted that the center provided volunteer as well as social and educational opportunities for senior citizens and its sports programs served special needs children without forcing Summit to spend money for such programs outside the city.

She added, “Think about the dollars put into this building in the 1950s and the return on the investment you have received over 50 years.”

Miles McMahon, who has been active on a number of city advisory boards over the years, said senior citizens didn’t want the center to be a “geriatric ghetto,” but welcomed their interaction with the youth of Summit. 

In addition, he said, a senior lounge was needed in the facility so seniors could increase their human contact after taking helpful exercise classes in Tai Chi and yoga.

Michael Vernotico of Blackburn Road, a former councilman and a coach of youth sports teams, said youth teams often had less than two hours per week to use center facilities because the facilities were so inadequate. 

“For too long,” he added, “the city has had a history of doing things to save a few bucks” and it should not once again shortchange its residents.

Former Summit High School and West Virginia University basketball player Wellington Smith said he and his wife had given up possible opportunities and a less expensive lifestyle in West Virginia to return to his hometown because of what Summit offered.

However, he said, because of the inadequate facilities at the community center, he would not bring members of youth teams he coached into the center’s gymnasium,

Former mayor Jordan Glatt said this was the city’s opportunity to “do it right” and it should “do it now” and not make the mistakes it had in allowing the former youth center at 2 Walnut Street to deteriorate, allowing half of the Wilson School to be torn down after it was neglected and not maintaining the Cornog Fieldhouse.

Although former mayor Janet Whitman could not be at Tuesday’s meeting, in a statement read for her at the meeting by Debbie Crisfield, she said Summit had been known for achieving much through public-private partnerships and it was time to respond to the needs of the sports and recreational communities by supporting the expansive renovation plan.

Crisfield, speaking for herself, said when she had joined the community programs advisory board 10 years ago members were speaking about the need to add a new gymnasium and increase space at the community center. She said she hoped it would not be another decade before something was done about it.

On another matter, city administrator Christopher Cotter outlined the revised city capital plan.

He noted that among projects under consideration, including the addition of the proposed community center renovation for completion in 2015, were replacement of fire-fighting apparatus, renovations to the aquatic center and Cornog Fieldhouse and improvements to the Salt Brook.

The administrator added there were about $22 million in a new category of projects “not otherwise specified” in the plan. These projects, he said, were being considered but a year of completion had not yet been assigned to the. They include:

  • Replacement of the fire headquarters ($10 million)
  • Renovation of the municipal golf course entrance
  • Replacement of artificial turf and rehabilitation of the fieldhouse at Upper Tatlock Park.
  • A new parking garage ($10 million)—depending on conclusions reached in the study of the central business district due to be released this week
  • New access controls for the tiered parking garage (although it has not yet been decided if this will be done).

Rubino noted placement of these projects on the capital plan was only “a first bite of the apple” and the projects cannot proceed until officially funded.

In another action at Tuesday’s meeting, the governing body accepted Millburn Township as a member of the joint dispatch center that currently includes only Summit and New Providence.

Council public safety chairman Patrick Hurley noted Millburn’s $350,000 contribution to the center means Summit would not have to pay $100,000 for additional costs the common council authorized a few weeks ago. He also said Millburn’s police and emergency medical service dispatching would be using the center when it was thought only that township’s fire dispatching service would be joining the new center.






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