HARPSWELL — After months of work, the town’s newest public gathering place is open.
The Ash Point Community Center, housed in the former library of the shuttered West Harpswell School, is part library, part study hall and part place to hang out.
The Center is the brainchild of a small group of Harpswell Neck residents who couldn’t bear the thought of seeing the school sit empty after it closed last June.
“Closing the school really tore the heart out of the West Harpswell community,” said David Chipman, who was concerned about the lack of public gathering places on the southern tip of Harpswell Neck.
At the same time, some of his neighbors were also eying the school for other purposes. Donna Frisoli had been thinking of opening a town library with Internet access, and Elizabeth Davis was looking for a place to house gatherings of home-schooled students.
With a cadre of volunteers, they started the all-volunteer Ash Cove Community Center, which will hold a grand opening on April 4 from 4-8 p.m. The center will offer story time and art classes on Mondays, yoga and a meeting space for home-schoolers. Its shelves are filled with children’s books given to the town by School Administrative District 75 after the school closed in June 2011, and Frisoli is seeking donations of adult books.
The final volunteer schedule is still being worked out, but hours will likely be Monday, Tuesday and Thursday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and Wednesdays from noon to 8:30 p.m.
Davis, who helps run the Center, said the wireless Internet will be up and running soon, as will more classes for adults.
“The intention is to have programming for all parts of the community,” she said, not just children.
Something like the Ash Point Community Center has been in the works since at least last summer, Davis said. But it was difficult to get off the ground because the Board of Selectmen required that any users of the school had to have an insurance policy and be affiliated with an entity that would be responsible for costs and liabilities.
Davis said she finally “bit the bullet” and took out an insurance policy with Chipman, only to learn that the town hadn’t yet completed inspections that would allow the community center to move in.
“It was challenging,” she said of the bureaucracy involved, but “the good side of that is it forced us to get organized as the Ash Point Community Center,” which she is currently trying to register as a nonprofit organization.
The center is starting to raise money to offer more programming and help share the cost of the insurance policy. It has received a donation of tables and chairs from the West Harpswell Baptist Church, which Davis said helped the center start offering classes right away.
And the center may offset some of the town’s cost of maintaining the old school. Before the group moved in, the town was paying $13,000 annually on a vacant building insurance policy. Now that the school is being used, that cost drops to $2,000 a year.
But Town Administrator Kristi Eiane cautioned against concluding that the community center will save Harpswell taxpayers any money in the long run.
“There’s a savings in insurance, but there are some potentially greater costs we have to monitor,” she said, including utilities, heat and building repairs.
Davis acknowledged the community center may only be an interim use until the town decides what it ultimately wants to do with the building. But she’s hoping it will stick around, whatever happens with the rest of West Harpswell School.
“It’s really a place where local people can come and bring their time and their talents to create something beneficial for everybody,” she said.
Volunteer Paula Conley sorts childrens books given to Ash Point Community Center by Harpswell Community School. The school received books after West Harpswell School closed, and donated duplicates to the community center.
David Chipman, left, Donna Frisoli and Elizabeth Davis meet in the library of the new Ash Point Community Center, in the former West Harpswell School.