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Brunswick says farewell to downtown Recreation Center

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Brunswick says farewell to downtown Recreation Center

BRUNSWICK — Bill Brooks remembers watching demolition crews tear down the old Town Hall on Maine Street when he was a child in 1960.

Now at age 60, he's watching the town change again.

This time, it's with the planned sale of the Recreation Center at 30 Federal St., a place Brooks said was the social center for him and many others when they were children.

It later became his place of employment, where he was sometimes known as "Dr. Billy Wheels" when he was the deejay for roller-skate nights in the 1980s.

"It was a perfect place to come in and hang out," Brooks said.

Brooks and more than a dozen others came out to the old Recreation Center on Sunday for a final open house, the last chance the public had to walk around the nearly 70-year-old building and shoot some hoops before its eventual sale.

The event was preceded last week by a week-long basketball tournament, the Mid-Winter Classic, an annual event at the building for more than 30 years.

The town has moved its recreation facility to a former U.S. Navy field house at 220 Neptune Drive at Brunswick Landing. The new center opened in December.

"It's mixed emotions," Tom Farrell,  who has worked as the Parks and Recreation Director since 1984, said of the former Recreation Center. "This building has been the centerpiece for recreation here for decades."

However, he said, the new Recreation Center presents a new opportunity with expanded facilities, including an indoor track, and 16 additional acres that can be developed to help make the property a regional recreation hub. He noted that the facility will be used as a starting point for the annual Race The Runways and Run for the Fallen.

"The new Rec Center is a tremendous asset received at no cost," Farrell said. 

The town's farewell to the former Recreation Center, which was bought from the United Services Organizations in 1947 for $8,500, comes at a time when the town is undergoing a larger facilities transformation.

Besides the move into a new Recreation Center, the town also moved into a new two-story Police Station on Pleasant Street last October. In addition, the town is expected to move into a new Town Hall building on Union Street by late March.

The town has already agreed to transfer the former Recreation Center and current Town Hall building on 28 Federal St. to the Brunswick Development Corp., under separate contracts. The town has received $225,000 and land for the new Police Station in exchange for the two properties.

Once the properties are transferred, BDC is expected to sell them for $300,000 to Wiscasset-based Coastal Enterprises, a nonprofit financial institution that plans to demolish the two municipal buildings to make room for a two-story headquarters that will house about 65 employees.

The sale of the Recreation Center property is expected to close by the end of June, after the Town Council approved an extension on Monday from the original April closing date in response to a request from BDC.

According to a memo from Finance Director and interim Town Manager John Eldridge, the closing was delayed because CEI, "while fully committed to the purchase," has experienced unforeseen delays in obtaining project financing on its originally planned schedule. In addition, the sale of the former Recreation Center to BDC is contingent upon CEI's purchase of the two municipal properties.

For Brooks and others who considered the former Recreation Center a home away from home, the sale is coming too soon.

"I know eventually this place will have to go," he said, "but it's not the appropriate time."

Peter Lavallee, 58, who was a talented basketball player as a child and later worked alongside Brooks at rollerskating events, agreed.

"I'm very sad to see this go," he said, adding that he had worked at the former Recreation Center for about 10 years. "I'm who I am today because of this place. So many memories."

The former Recreation Center was a particularly special place for Brooks and others who attended Saint John's Catholic School, because it was a place where they could make friends with children from the town's public schools.

"It was a fun place to come every day," Lavallee said. "Your parents didn't have to worry, because they knew where you were."

Town Councilor Suzan Wilson, who visited the former Recreation Center on Sunday, acknowledged that it's hard to leave the past behind. But, like Farrell, she pointed to the opportunities that will be opened up at the new Recreation Center at Brunswick Landing.

"Our only growth potential is in east Brunswick, so capitalizing on what we have will help development in the future," Wilson said, adding that the new recreation facility could encourage more growth for an area that has already seen a promising increase in residential and commercial development in the last few years.

When the sale of the former Recreation Center was announced last spring, some residents criticized the council's plan, in part, because it was moving the town's recreation facility away from the downtown area.

To address some of these concerns, Farrell said the Parks and Recreation Department is continuing to work on ways to improve accessibility to the new center, including a plan to open pedestrian and cyclist access to Brunswick Landing from Pine Street this spring or summer.

Dylan Martin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or dmartin@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DylanLJMartin.