HARWICH — The need to expand services at the community center and cultural center was a clear message sent by selectmen Monday night to Town Administrator Christopher Clark and staff. The message comes on the heels of a few parents urging selectmen a couple of weeks ago to open the community center on Sundays and holidays for their children.
The message certainly had the ear of selectmen. On Monday night board members said they are looking for a plan from the town administrator and staff to have the community center open on Sundays and holidays; selectmen also said they want to see expanded use of the cultural center, specifically ways to better utilize the auditorium, cafeteria and gymnasium. The caveat to that message is finding ways to fund the expanded uses.
Selectman Jannell Brown raised the community center access issue a couple of weeks ago. But Brown recused herself from the discussion on fees at the community center because she has a relative that rents space there. She inquired of the state Ethics Commission whether she could participate in the discussion, and the commission recommended she recuse herself.
Chairman Michael MacAskill focused the discussion on expanded hours at the community center and raising money to offset the cost of another staff member to provide additional coverage.
Clark suggested looking at opening Sundays and “soft” holidays such as President's Day and Patriots Day as an experiment. Those holidays would provide an indication of the interest in the community and give an indication of the staffing needs, he said.
Clarjk wanted to know if selectmen were looking just for an open gymnasium or complete opening to the community center, citing the greater staffing needs. “If successful and it's going well, we can make it work,” he said.
Selectman Larry Ballantine wanted to know the impact on the expense side. He noted that the community center in the town of Truro uses volunteers to offset staffing costs. Recreation Director Eric Beebe cautioned against that, citing a regulation requiring one employee for 13 kids as well as collective bargaining issues.
Beebe also cautioned against the reliability of volunteers, saying recreation staff should oversee the facility. Selectman Julie Kavanagh concurred. Room and event fees could be increased a little to pay for the additional services, she said.
Community Center Director Carolyn Carey said selectmen set the fees at the center, but she also pointed out the majority of the room rentals are to nonprofits. She said there are only four for-profit programs that use the revolving fund account in the center, paying a fee into the general fund.
Carey said the programs provide services to the community for less than what it cost elsewhere. MacAskill questioned why the center was providing services more affordable than businesses in town. “It's not what we want to be doing,” he said, saying the center shouldn't duplicate commercially available services.
He said the board would be looking at room rates and the board would be adjusting fees again. Carey agreed the for-profits should be paying more than nonprofits.
“I'll look at it, absolutely,” Carey responded.
Kavanagh focused on kids on vacation having access to the center. She said the recreation department should determine their interests and provide services at a minimal cost. Beebe said an open gym would require staff, and he did not think it would draw a lot of kids. The Chatham Community Center Sunday opening draws 10 to 15 kids, he said.
“We opened up a building without a business plan and we still don't have one,” Selectman Donald Howell said. “Whatever we do has to involve the kids.”
“Parents feel kids don't have a place to go,” Kavanagh said.
Clark said he would work with staff on a plan to provide Sunday and soft holiday hours and look at fees that would help to pay for the additional staff.
Discussion shifted to the cultural center and the growing success of the facility. “It's thriving, things are happening there,” Carey said of the cultural center. Last weekend's Christmas in Harwich drew more than 300 people to the former middle school.
Ballantine recommended use of the auditorium be maximized to help pay for the operation. He also suggested the town might want to make some investments to draw other long-term clients to the center, such as a cooking or teaching institute.
“There are visionary decisions that have to be made,” Ballantine said of making improvements to draw long-term use. It was pointed out the kitchen would have to be brought up to code for cooking uses.
Clark met with Harwich Junior Theatre representatives, explaining their two-year lease is not going to draw long-term investment in the facilities. He said selectmen need to look at a three-year extension of leases.
“They're not beating down the door now for the auditorium,” Clark said.
MacAskill raised issues about the room rentals and people sharing rooms. Carey said there is $300 fee for a shared a room which could be $200 a month for each of two people sharing a room, three at most. Carey also said an increase in rental fee for the shop in the basement is under consideration.
Since there is a waiting list, fee increases are possible, but Carey said no changes to current leases are being sought. MacAskill asked about the revenue generated; Carey said $70,630 has been brought in since rentals began in February.
MacAskill said he supported extending the cultural center rental program to five years, but that should be brought back to the voters in town meeting because they were told it would be for two years. He also said a public hearing date would be set in the future for changes relating to Sunday and holiday openings and changes to fees in both centers.