By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
City Council awarded a $280,000 architectural and engineering contract Tuesday for the next phase of Sea Isle City’s proposed community recreation center, but not everyone is happy with the idea of including an auditorium and other amenities that could add to the cost.
Councilwoman Mary Tighe, the only member of the governing body who voted against the contract, is worried that the project has suddenly “morphed” from the original plans for a recreation facility into more of a community center.
“I’m not against the project as a whole. I think it needs to be vetted a lot more before we spend so much money,” Tighe said in an interview after the Council meeting, which was held by teleconference amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The city is planning to demolish the old public school at 4501 Park Road to make way for the community recreation center. The school, which closed in 2012 due to Sea Isle’s declining student population, occupies the entire block bordered by Park Road, Central Avenue, 45th Street and 46th Street.
According to preliminary plans, the new facility would include a large gymnasium featuring a regulation-size basketball court, pickleball courts, retractable bleachers and partitions to divide the space for other recreation activities.
Overlooking the gym on a second level would be a “sky walkway” for exercising. There would also be multipurpose recreation rooms for such activities as yoga, Zumba and Pilates.
The building would also include a cafeteria, catering kitchen, meeting space and a 140-seat auditorium for plays and other cultural events as part of its dual role as a community center.
The proposal for the auditorium, cafeteria and other community-style amenities was announced during the Aug. 11 Council meeting when the city’s architect, Henry Hengchua, unveiled his preliminary concept for the building.
Tighe said she was surprised to learn of plans for the auditorium and multipurpose rooms during Hengchua’s presentation. It was the first public glimpse of what the estimated $13 million to $16 million project may look like when completed.
“It has morphed into a lot more than I expected and with that it comes with a higher price,” Tighe said.
She questioned why the city might pursue a costlier and more elaborate community center-style complex, rather than just a recreation center, at a time when the pandemic has caused so much uncertainty about the economy and jobs.
“I think we’re putting the cart before the horse,” Tighe said, adding that she wants to slow down the process for developing the project so it can be closely scrutinized.
Under a previous $29,000 contract, Hengchua collaborated with Mayor Leonard Desiderio on a preliminary concept for the project. Hengchua noted during his Aug. 11 presentation that the mayor’s “main focus was to make this a community center, not just a gym alone.”
A parking garage is proposed underneath the two-story facility. Hengchua’s preliminary design includes a brick building that would be accented by an expansive glossy glass facade to let in plenty of natural light.
Hengchua will continue his involvement with the project under the $280,000 architectural and engineering contract awarded to his Toms River company by a 4-1 vote by Council. Tighe was the lone dissenter.
Hengchua’s new contract will include the project’s schematic design and design development phase. His work will allow the city to refine the scope of the project and develop a firmer cost estimate.
“What we’re going to do now will help us to dig down and get some more information so that we can finalize what we want to build collectively as a city and the kind of budget associated with that,” City Business Administrator George Savastano told Council.
Savastano, the senior official in Desiderio’s administration, repeatedly assured Council that the project is only in the preliminary stage and no final decisions have been made about the cost, the size and the amenities that will be included.
“Currently the conceptual plans that have been presented to the public include components such as a gymnasium, an auditorium, kitchen and multipurpose rooms. However, nothing is finalized at this point,” Savastano said.
He continued, “While these items are included in the initial concept that’s been presented to Council and the public, there remains significant design, development and review to be done in order for us to make some of the decisions relative to finalizing the building program.”
The city hopes to finish the project by spring 2023. Desiderio has stressed that the city will work closely with the public for its feedback and guidance while the project unfolds.
On Tuesday, former Sea Isle Councilman John Divney raised objections about the project during the public portion of the Council meeting. He questioned the need for such things as an auditorium, cafeteria and multipurpose rooms in a facility that was supposed to be a recreation complex when it was first planned.
“Do we really want an auditorium in town?” Divney asked pointedly.
In response, Council President William Kehner said a community center would fulfill the needs of the entire city.
Kehner noted that the complex could provide more uses than simply serving as a recreation facility. The auditorium, for instance, could provide a venue for community theatrical productions by young people, he said.
At the same time, Kehner emphasized that nothing is “set in stone” while the city continues to review the project and the amenities that would be included.
One thing that will not be included is an indoor swimming pool following overwhelming taxpayer opposition to that part of the project. The indoor pool was rejected in both a ballot referendum and an online survey conducted by the city last fall.