CALDWELL, NJ — Nearly 300 Caldwell-area residents participated in a virtual town hall meeting on Thursday to discuss the status and potential future of the Caldwell Community Center (CCC), which has been closed since March 13 due to the pandemic and will remain closed until at least January while a task force analyzes its financial viability.
Prior to the forced closure, Caldwell’s governing body sought to revert the costs of operations and maintenance back to the original intent, which was for the 20-year-old facility to be self-sustaining and therefore able operate without the use of taxpayer dollars.
The CCC has been described by elected officials, residents and members as a “jewel of the county” and an integral part of the fabric and identity of the community.
In addition to providing various recreational activities—including senior citizen services, aquatics, youth programs and fitness programs—the CCC also provides facility usage for teams enrolled in the Special Olympics, and both the West Essex Regional High School and James Caldwell High School swim teams utilize the pool during their regular seasons.
However, economic factors coupled with continuing infrastructure needs have forced the hand of the governing body to temporarily close the facility until at least Jan. 1, 2021, regardless of whether state restrictions are lifted.
According to Business Administrator Thomas Banker, the CCC has been running at an annual deficit of between $400,000 and $500,000 since 2015. The estimated capital investment cost of about $7 million to $9 million would be apportioned to two-thirds to cover the cost of a new parking deck and one-third to cover the cost of renovations and upgrades to the CCC.
If that figure is bonded over 30 years, the debt service payment is approximately $450,000 annually, according to Banker, representing an additional $200 assessed in property taxes to the average homeowner. The average homeowner is currently paying $200 annually to supplement the costs of the facility.
According to Banker, there are still debt service payments for the bonds throughout the years that have been refinanced. He estimated that these would conclude in the next two-to-five years.
During Thursday’s meeting, Mayor John Kelley explained that although the Borough of Caldwell is solely responsible for the upkeep of the facility, records indicate that only 30 percent of CCC members are Caldwell residents.
According to Kelley, 20 percent of members are West Caldwell residents, 10 percent are residents of Verona and North Caldwell and 5 percent are from Roseland and Essex Fells. The remaining 20 percent of CCC members include residents from more than 20 municipalities.
In order to move the conversation forward, a task force is being established that will include a group of residents that represents both members and non-members of the CCC as well as Kelley, Banker, Council President Christine Schmidt and Councilman Henderson Cole.
According to Banker, the task force will consider the following questions:
- Can the facility be self-sufficient?
- If not, can a guaranteed subsidy be created to assist?
- Should the facility be run by an entity other than the municipal government?
- Would the land and structure be of greater value for another purpose?
An advisory board will also be formed that will include non-residents who have specific expertise in assessing the variables presented to the task force.
Once Banker completes his due diligence in ascertaining all relevant information, he said he expects meetings to begin in June. The board and the task force will both make a goal to present their conclusions and recommendations to the governing body in the fall.
In a joint statement issued by Kelley and Council President Christine Schmidt they stated:
“Given the outpouring of responses from Caldwell residents and our entire area, it is clear that the Caldwell Community Center is a highly valued asset,” Kelley and Schmidt said in a joint statement. “Sadly, the pandemic forced us to close its doors. We intend to use this time wisely in order to study the ongoing difficulties—primarily financial—we have been having.
“With the formation of a task force, we will have a group of member and nonmember residents who will bring an impressive breadth of life and work experience to study the issues and search for innovative solutions. Tonight's meeting is the beginning of that process where we will hear our residents’ concerns and questions which will be basis for those investigations.”
The virtual town hall meeting gave residents of Caldwell and neighboring communities they opportunity to provide recommendations, pose questions and seek clarification on multiple issues and concerns.
Many callers expressed their overwhelming support for the facility and their hope that the CCC will re-open.
Particularly vocal were users of the pool, including individuals and coaches who spoke on behalf of local swim teams. Charter members and other long-time members spoke of their “love for the CCC” and how the closure has affected their families.
A few callers questioned the validity of the estimated $7-to-$9 million needed for the complex’s infrastructure being “CCC related.” They reiterated that the bulk of these funds would be needed to replace the parking deck, which the callers said is only partially used by CCC members. One caller suggested making the new parking deck a fee-based operation in order to offset more costs and bring in more revenue.
Another caller who works as a realtor in the town noted that the CCC has been a major asset when showing Caldwell homes to potential buyers.
One resident questioned the marketing of the facility and suggested that there is room for improvement in this area to help rebrand the facility if it is reopened.
Once governmental restrictions to the pandemic are lifted, a caller requested that the CCC make the pool operational in the interim in order to meet the needs of the schools and swim clubs. A swim coach who participated in the meeting requested that an aquatic director with expertise in marketing be considered for the task force and/or advisory committee.
Former Councilman Richard Hauser called in to assert that the CCC is an asset to the community and confirmed that there have previously been multiple upgrades to the facility. However, if the CCC is ever considered for sale to a third party, Hauser said it would be prudent to fix the facility first in order to increase its value.
Councilman Jonathan Lace agreed that the CCC is “a local asset with regional benefits” and emphasized that Caldwell taxpayers “have a vested interest in the future of the CCC.”
Lace stated that members of the community center—both residents of Caldwell and residents from surrounding communities—frequent Caldwell’s businesses downtown and “give Caldwell the high livability factor.”
“We all value public input into the decisions we will have to make as a council,” he said. “I am confident that the town hall tonight will begin a process that results in a better understanding of the community’s value of the CCC to them and their families. I believe tonight’s meeting is a model for how better government is conducted.”
He added that the work of the task force “will result in a better understanding of the history, current challenges and future potential of the CCC.”
“I look forward to the work of arriving at a framework for the CCC that prioritizes these aspects of life in our borough in a way that is responsible to our taxpayers and fair to CCC members,” he said.
Kelley assured residents that there will be constant communication as the task force moves forward and that a similar town hall meeting will be held toward the end of the process.
The full meeting is currently available for daily viewing on Channel 35 at noon and 7 p.m.