NEWPORT — Newport officials are renewing efforts to fund a new community center two years after town voters rejected a previous project proposal.
The town selectboard agreed on Monday to reactivate a former committee to study and facilitate discussions with town residents about the building of a new community center, which selectmen believe would be an economic asset and boost community socialization and wellbeing.
Selectman Herbert Tellor, elected to the board last November, said that, in a recent public forum, residents identified the community center project as their top priority.
“It crushed everything else,” Tellor said. “It was a no-brainer that the community center was the key project that needed to stay number one.”
The existing, nearly 100-year-old community center is in serious need of rehabilitation, according to officials. The facility is relatively small for the community’s needs and some sections are difficult for people with physical impairments to access.
A new center was estimated in 2020 to cost approximately $6.5 million, which Newport Selectboard Chair Jeffrey Kessler believes might cost an additional $1 million today if factoring current construction prices.
Beyond price inflation the plan will mostly remain the same, according to Kessler. The town will aim to raise roughly half the project cost through fundraising efforts. Taxpayers would be responsible for about $3.5 million of the expense.
The taxpayer’s share, minus the donated portion, would be comparable in cost to renovate the existing center, last estimated at $2.9 million, but provided a significantly greater capacity, Kessler noted.
The current building, located on Belknap Avenue, has a total space of 8,000 square feet with a gymnasium that comprises 4,000 square feet. In comparison a proposed design for a new facility would have a total size of 29,000 square feet and a gymnasium of 8,000 square feet.
Town voters rejected this proposal in May 2019 by a vote of 443 in favor and 553 against. The article, which required a three-fifths majority vote to pass, fell well short in 2019, with only 44% support.
“The last time we put the community center before the voters it was sort of a rush job,” Kessler said. “We needed some better outreach. Some people weren’t sure what was happening to the old one . . . and at the time we were looking at a 60 cent addition to the tax rate.”
Kessler said he feels the town can provide more assurance to voters now. The town has kept the municipal tax rate level for the past two years and the board is confident the tax rate will remain stable in the coming years.
Newport is also funding an extensive upgrade to its water and sewer system, whose infrastructure, some of which is between 80 and 100 years old and at the end of its operating life.
In November Newport voters approved $2.3 million in bonds to begin critical upgrades to the town water distribution system on Unity Road. The town expects to fund about $1 million of this project through a grant and the town to assume a repayment of $1.3 million.
The town is also seeking $1.2 million total in federal funding to cover the costs of two key water and sewer projects: upgrades to the Riverbend pump station, estimated to cost $800,000 and a new town well in North Newport.
The town is eligible to receive up to $660,000 in total federal funds for projects related to water and sewer infrastructure, broadband, public health or business recovery assistance. The Selectboard also authorized the town on Monday to seek a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) for up to $500,000 to offset costs of the Riverbend pump system project.
Town Manager Hunter Riesenberg explained that the town aims to use approximately $300,000 of $660,000 to narrow the gap of the Riverbend project. The remainder of those federal funds would go to engineering, testing and permitting for the North Newport well. Newport water and sewer customers would only be responsible for a cost of $200,000 from these projects.