RICHMOND — Members of the new Community Center Study Committee met for the first time on Thursday to elect officers and decide on their priorities.
Former Town Council member Mark Trimmer, who currently serves on the Planning Board and the Economic Development Commission, was elected to chair the eight-member group. Robin Woodmansee was elected vice chair and Erin Liese will be the secretary.
The other members are Chief of Police Elwood Johnson, Senior Center Director Dennis McGinity, Department of Public Works Director and Fire Chief Scott Barber, and residents Dick Millar and Allen Cullion.
The committee was created by the Town Council in early December to determine whether the town should build a community and senior center or rent and renovate an existing building, such as the long-vacant Cycle Brothers store in Wyoming.
The busy and popular senior center, which now has 300 members, meets on the second floor of the police station. It is difficult to access for people with limited mobility, and Johnson said the arrangement was not working for the seniors, or for the police.
“That building was not dual-purpose built,” he said. “It wasn’t built as a police station, it wasn’t built as a community center, it’s being used as both. It was designed as a bank and we’ve made it work with duct tape … It gets to the point where you’ve got to do right by the people that work for the town, provide them with a safe and secure space for them to do their job.”
As the town continues to grow, the need for a center that would serve the needs of the entire community, including seniors, has become increasingly apparent to many residents. If the senior center moves out of the police station, the town would then renovate and modernize the building to better accommodate the police department.
Barber said the town should offer a recreational and meeting facility to all its residents.
“It’s time that the town have facilities where they can host their own Financial Town Meetings,” Barber said. “Whether it’s the youth activities or the senior activities, we don’t offer enough.”
The town owns a 5-acre property across the road from Town Hall, and a new center could be built there. But the committee will also explore the feasibility of renting existing space in town.
Trimmer said he had met with staffers in the offices of U.S. Sens. Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, who suggested that the center might occupy one of several vacant buildings.
“They seemed to be very knowledgeable about our town and one of their concerns was, we had at the time we met 11 empty retail spaces in town and two of them are enormous retail spaces,” Trimmer said. “Their concern was us building a building for $2 million, $3 million, when we have two enormous buildings that could serve as a community center as a stopgap.”
Trimmer was referring to the Cycle Brothers building and a former Walgreens.
There is also a possibility of the town partnering with another group. Trimmer explained that the Arcadia branch of the Ocean Community YMCA was planning to move out of its current building and might be interested in sharing a new or existing building.
Barber and Woodmansee encouraged the group to focus first on the needs of the town and decide how large a facility would be required and what amenities, such as a kitchen and meeting room, it would include.
“We’ve got to get an idea from Dennis on what the senior needs will be,” Barber said. “We have to get an idea from the Town Council on what they want to see for a meeting room. Are there going to be kitchen facilities? Shower facilities? There’s a lot of things that need to be sorted out for recreation. We need to come up with a footprint of what square footage we’re looking at before we think about partnering with another organization.”
The committee agreed to remain open to all possibilities, including a partnership with the YMCA. Members also plan to tour the newer community centers in Glocester and West Greenwich.
The mandate of the committee includes monthly meetings, and the group will be expected to complete its research and report back to the council in a year. Members agreed to meet twice a month and scheduled their next meeting for Jan. 23.