Mill Creek Center Saga: Broken Promises, Doubt
To the Editor:
Regarding the Mill Creek Community Center in Beach Haven West, demolished after damage from Superstorm Sandy in October 2012, this is our understanding of the controversy surrounding its replacement.
After officials reported that the community center could not be restored, actor Alec Baldwin donated $250,000. Then and for the next year, the understanding was that the money would help pay to replace the center. That also was how local newspapers and the governor reported the gift.
Neither the mayor nor the township council clarified the donation’s intent as they repeatedly reassured BHW residents the community center would be replaced. There even was talk about inviting Baldwin to the ribbon-cutting.
At one point, we recall plans being drawn, bids sought, received and opened, but a contract was not awarded because of high cost.
More than a year later, a bonding ordinance was introduced at a council meeting, revealing plans were under way for a Bay Avenue community center as well as a smaller building (800 square feet) on Mill Creek Road. The reasons for that decision had not been discussed with citizens actively involved in the Mill Creek center. The lack of communication created discontent.
Initially, finances were the reason given for the switch in plans, specifically uncertainty about insurance reimbursement on the Mill Creek Road building. At a Beach Haven West Civic Association meeting, Mayor John Spodofora explained that the council decided a center on Bay Avenue was more prudent because of flood-zone issues, primarily the need to offer services during a flood crisis. He vowed, however, that he was committed to providing Beach Haven West residents with a replacement building. He repeated that promise several times in ensuing months, even after a resident told him that he doubted the building would ever be built.
Whenever asked about the status of the Mill Creek Road replacement, the official answer was that once the Bay Avenue building was complete, work would commence in Beach Haven West.
The mayor appointed a committee of five BHW residents to provide input on the replacement plan. He produced an architectural drawing at the first meeting, also attended by Councilman Alan Smith. Changes were requested, including adding a stove, and the committee was told it would meet again to review those changes.
To our surprise, the mayor decided in September not to meet again with the citizen committee. He said he and council members were not pleased with how the first meeting transpired. At a September council meeting, the council was polled on their reported displeasure. Smith either did not respond or his response was not heard; the other four council members said they had no problem or awareness of the meeting in question.
The lingering issue is providing a stove in the new BHW facility. The BHW civic association was simply asking to regain what was lost; the mayor and council members maintain a stove installation is cost prohibitive. Recently, some have muddied the debate by saying we insist on a gas stove, thus hiking costs to run a gas line. Not true. Our request is for what we lost – an electric stove with oven.
A sore spot in this controversy is last year’s purchase of the Pine Street building at a cost of $225,000 with anticipated significant repairs. On Jan. 24, Township Administrator Jim Moran announced that the township received a $140,000 Federal Emergency Management Agency grant to refurbish the Pine Street building. He explained that this was because the adjacent Bay Avenue building was deemed an alternate site to the center lost in a flood zone.
Noteworthy is that only recently, we heard that FEMA would not allow building a community center in a flood zone. Previously, we were told that the governing body decided Bay Avenue was a wiser location and solicited, then received FEMA approval to relocate the center.
At the Nov 29 council meeting, the mayor said because Bay Avenue was about to open, steps were moving forward regarding the Mill Creek Road facility. Drawings were due early this year and construction was to be completed by the end of 2017. At the Dec. 13 council meeting, officials said site work was being done to complete the engineering/architectural details for the Mill Creek Road facility and construction would begin in January.
In the interim, the civic association continued to press for a full kitchen. Council members were approached individually. Some stood firmly behind the mayor; others were sympathetic to BHW residents.
At a social gathering in December, Councilman Steve Fessler – who had indicated there might be adequate votes to include a stove – said council members now were reluctant but would be receptive to a successful petition drive, already under way. Fessler encouraged a vibrant petition effort.
The petition with 430 names was presented at the Jan. 24 meeting, to which the mayor invited two residents to speak against the BHW civic association’s request.
It should be noted that no township group or individual has ever been discouraged from joining the effort to replace the Mill Creek Road building, which indeed is a township facility. Was it an asset to the BHW community? Indeed, and we simply expected it to be replaced. We were reassured repeatedly that it would be.
The mayor closed the Jan. 24 meeting by reading a prepared statement, saying he and a unanimous council were putting the Mill Creek Road center on hold as they review the existing two community centers’ use and township needs before proceeding.
Thus, we have gone from having the Mill Creek Road center rebuilt to being offered a reduced version to now having the project placed in limbo by a mayor who publicly pledged it would become a reality.
We, the Beach Haven West Civic Association, have closely followed the township’s pledge to rebuild the center and, in good faith, have tried to work with the mayor and council. In the past four years, we have experienced poor and even no communication, conflicting information and broken promises.
All we have ever sought is what was lost, and what we were promised.
Fran Kosas is vice president of the Beach Haven West Civic Association.