Two Fitchburg neighborhoods could soon have new community centers.
One, in the Jamestown neighborhood on the city’s northwest side, would be for teens, while the other would be for the general public near Fish Hatchery Road. Both could open as early as next year.
The Common Council approved adding the projects to the city’s capital improvement plan at its Tuesday, Aug. 11, meeting. The teen center would be west of Verona Road, and the community hub would be along Traceway Drive.
Putting projects in the CIP does not commit the city to funding or a set timeframe. Rather, the CIP provides a framework for planning budgets 10 years out. The council must approve funding through the budget process in the fall and would borrow for the projects the following year.
In order to make room for funding for the two projects, proposed by the city’s two District 2 alders, Joe Maldonado and Julia Arata-Fratta, the city would reduce the scope of its police department expansion from a standalone building to an expansion built onto City Hall, where the department is located.
The city is not limited to a certain amount of borrowing each year, but financial advisers typically advise keeping the borrowing level consistent. Plans for the police department expansion have changed several times over the past five years.
Alders approved all four amendments – one to reduce the size of the police department’s expansion, two for the different phases of the Fish Hatchery community hub and one for the Jamestown teen center.
The public hearing for the amendments took up the first two hours of a nearly seven-hour meeting that stretched into early morning hours. The vast majority of the dozens who spoke in person over Zoom or wrote in comments were in favor of the community centers, citing lower crime rates, expanding access to resources in socioeconomically challenged areas and providing safe places for children to gather.
The community hub on Traceway Drive would be built just west of the new senior living apartments that border Fish Hatchery Road, the amendment document reads. Phase 1 would include a 14,500-square foot recreation facility, two community buildings, an adventure playground, bike tracks and an outdoor plaza.
The Jamestown teen center would be placed in the vacant A-1 Furniture and Mattress building, and would fill a gap in programming for children between the ages of 13 and 18 by providing mental health and academic support and reducing involvement in the juvenile justice system.
Ald. Tom Clauder (Dist. 4), a former City of Fitchburg police officer, agreed the city needs spaces like the community hub and the teen center, but he did not like seeing the funding come out of the police expansion budget, and questioned whether the city could afford it.
Clauder also expressed frustrations that the plans for the new department have changed repeatedly after each CIP process under three mayoral administrations.
“We’re changing the department because we outgrew it,” he said. “This city has to think for the future, and this department cannot be built for the next five years.”
He then referred to a growing nationwide movement to reduce funding for police and divert the money to mental health, community building and other programs, Defund the Police, and asked the sponsors of the amendment if that was part of their reasoning.
“Defund is maybe a little too strong of a word, I don’t mean it like that, but it takes away from the police department,” Clauder said.
Maldonado responded that it was not a way of taking funds away from the police budget since they were funds that had not yet been allocated, and he added that having these two community centers would assist police by reducing crime in the neighborhoods.
“I want to make it clear that this is not defunding, nor is it taking away,” he said. “These are needs that are occurring right now … for years, neighbors in both neighborhoods have called for spaces in these communities.”