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Wilton Community Center Committee not giving up

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  • The inside of the Sacred Heart Church has non-religious themed stained glass windows.
  • The town has yet to decide on whether they will accept the gift of the Sacred Heart Church on Maple Street, leaving a local committee hoping to use it as a home for a local community center in flux.
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  • Sacred Heart Church is the current location for the local food pantry, which would have to be moved were the building sold or gifted to an entity other than the town.

WILTON — The results of Town Meeting have left the town’s Community Center Committee in a state of limbo, authorizing the Select Board to negotiate the acceptance of the Sacred Heart Church on Maple Street without authorizing a budget to keep the building running.

At a Select Board meeting on March 25, Select Board member Dan Donovan expressed doubts that the board could responsibly accept the building without a budget to at least keep it lit and heated, leaving the Community Center Committee with few options for a community gathering place.

“The question is, will the town go through with accepting the church or not,” said committee member Richard Mercier in interview last week. “It’s still an open question that has yet to be resolved.” But the committee is making plans to continue developing a community center no matter which way the Select Board decides.

The church

The Wilton Community Center Committee was first formed to determine a potential use for the Sacred Heart Church when it was offered to the town as a gift by the Diocese of Manchester last year. They determined that the space would make an ideal community center, and have been working towards that goal ever since.

However, the Select Board has reservations about the building, hesitating to accept it based on potentially expensive upkeep and constricting conditions on the building’s use that would come with it.

The Select Board would have to agree not to use the building for any use that would conflict with the morals of the Catholic Church. While the board didn’t express any qualms over some of the specifics of the clauses, such as not using the building as an abortion clinic, tattoo parlor or liquor store, members have said they are worried about how strictly the conditions are enforced.

The committee, however, has said it not concerned with that issue. In talks with Diocese representatives, it was made clear that the Diocese is not interested in policing the church, members of the committee said in an interview on April 2, and the community center won’t be in violation of any of the conditions as a rule anyway.

There are several reasons the church would make an ideal location, said the committee’s chair, Nicole Colvin-Griffin. For example, it has a large industrial kitchen which can be used to cater large events and community suppers. It also has great acoustics and makes for a good meeting place for open mic nights and concerts, plus it’s centrally located.

The lack of annual funding appropriated was a disappointment to the committee, especially as members of the Select Board said they were disinclined to accept it without a way to fund it afterwards. However, the committee has since committed itself to funding the operating budget through private donations, and its members are currently in talks with residents who might be willing to fund the basics for the first year, said Mercier.

“There are private sources of funding currently being cultivated,” he said.

Select Board members Bill Condra and Rick Swanson said they would be more willing to accept the building if there were funding available, although Donovan said there was no way to guarantee funding in future years. Swanson said he was more concerned with long-term maintenance repair costs than either the possible conditions of accepting the church.

Alternative options

With the Select Board’s acceptance of the church far from assured, the committee has been discussing alternative options. Members are willing to pursue the idea of a community center even without the church as a permanent home, said Colvin-Griffin.

“The whole reason we formed was to find a use for the church,” she said. “That’s been the focus. But there’s been a turning of the gears and people are open to moving in a new direction.”

Mercier agreed, saying, “We now have to look at the community center as a concept, and not a location,” he said.

The committee looked at alternative locations for a community center, including the Wilton Falls building, but the drawbacks have largely made the committee rule it out as an option. The usable space at Wilton Falls is on the third floor and is not handicapped accessible, which would make it difficult for seniors to access. It’s also not centrally located in town.

Another option, at least until a more permanent location is found, is to rent a space for once or twice monthly for regular programs. That way, Mercier said, the community center effort will hold momentum and have a central location until a more permanent solution can be realized.

Previously, there had been discussions of a new building on town-owned property in Goss Park, but the initial cost estimates came in too high to be considered a viable option, said Colvin-Griffin.

The Select Board has said it will hold off on making a decision on the church, in order to give the committee time to raise private funds for a community center operating budget.

Ashley Saari can be reached at 924-7172 ext. 235 or asaari@ledgertranscript.com. She’s on Twitter at @AshleySaari.

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