Underused and in need of some love, the O’Brien Community Center may soon have new owners.
Winooski officials are looking to sell the long-standing community hub on Malletts Bay Avenue to the Champlain Housing Trust.
The center has hosted health services and various nonprofits for more than 15 years but has been running on a deficit, said Ray Coffey, community services director for the city.
Several programs rent space in the O’Brien center but about 5,000 of the 28,000-square-foot building is vacant, including the community kitchen. The center’s expenses in the current fiscal year are approximately $300,000. Revenues only partially cover these costs, so the city is planning to use reserve funds to cover a nearly $90,000 deficit, according to Coffey.
Cities, in general, are not great landlords and Winooski officials have not been able to keep up with the maintenance of the large facility and rental spaces, said City Manager Elaine Wang.
“The hope is that it would be better managed and potentially even welcome some new tenants,” Wang said. “Our hope for the future is that it continues to be a community gathering place with community services and that it’s better realized.”
They are aiming to have an agreement signed this fiscal year, according to Wang.
Coffey said the center has been in a “transitional period after terminating its lease with North End Studios, whose co-founder was accused of sexual misconduct. “If we can find a prospective buyer that wants to maintain the facility as a community center in the spirit of what the facility was originally envisioned to be – which was kind of a resource hub for the city – I think that that could be a really fantastic opportunity.”
Built in 1936 and owned and managed by the city since 2007, the center currently houses Winooski’s public library and community services department along with several programs and nonprofits.
The Community Health Centers of Burlington is the anchor tenant along with Vermont Works for Women, an original tenant. The center also houses an aquatic therapy program run by the University of Vermont Medical Center; a parent child interaction therapy program run by the Howard Center; substance abuse services run by Winooski Partnership for Prevention and nonprofit dental services by Vermont Dental Care.
“When the building is full and busy I think it’s a huge and important resource for the community,” Coffey said. “Especially for a lot of our newly settled residents it’s really handy to have everything kind of in one spot.”
Michael Monte, chief executive officer of the Champlain Housing Trust, said he expects that the current tenants would continue to operate there. He envisions the trust improving the building, enhancing services and renting out unused space. Monte cited the Old North End Community Center in Burlington, started by CHT in an old school building about five years ago, as a comparable endeavor.
“I think the focus really will be on more community services and enhancing the (building) as a community center,” he said.
Champlain Housing Trust recently completed a project next to the O’Brien Community Center that includes 20 permanently affordable homes sold for between $143,000 and $185,00, or roughly half the market price.
That project, built on city-owned property, prompted discussions about the future of the community center, Monte said.
“It was really the city of Winooski making the determination that we have done well as a nonprofit partner, could we take on all of it?” he said. “That discussion happened over the last six to nine months and we’ve been working through various details that need to be thought through.”
The funding and timeline for the sale remain under discussion. “The plans have to make sense to the city and then we have to agree on the pricing,” Wang said.
“I think the idea of this building at its core is really wonderful for the community. I just hope we can stabilize it to a point where it’s working really well for the people that live here,” said Coffey.
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