Community center perseveres amid controversy

Posted April 05, 2010, at 8:16 p.m.

NEWPORT, Maine — Despite a criminal investigation into missing money and the elimination of $100,000 in support from the town of Newport, the focus at Sebasticook Valley Community Center is the same as it always has been: providing unique opportunities for the residents of Newport and surrounding towns.

Pam Newcomb, president of the center’s board of directors, said the controversy surrounding the center has caused difficulties, but that strong support from the community is emerging.

“Now is the time that the community center needs to be more visible,” she said. “We offer a lot of opportunities for people young and old, and that isn’t going to stop.”

The board of directors has resolved to absorb the $100,000 loss without disrupting any of the dozens of programs run by the center. That’s despite the fact that Newport selectmen opted to create a separate recreation department for the town — the immediate effect of which are summer youth T-ball, baseball and softball programs run by both the community center and the town of Newport.

Gene Rouse, the center’s director and only full-time employee, said he has heard a range of opinions about the center since it came to light last month that the Newport Police Department was investigating the center’s finances at the request of the board of directors. Among the chatter has been confusion around the creation of concurrent baseball and softball programs.

“There is a lot of misinformation on the street,” said Rouse. “We now have kids signed up in both places, and there are coaches who are not sure where they are meant to go. They’re volunteers and they don’t need this nonsense.”

Newport Police Chief Leonard Macdaid said Friday that his department has finished its investigation and submitted its findings to the Penobscot County District Attorney’s Office. He would not discuss details other than to say that there is money missing from the center’s accounts and that “there is a suspect in the case.”

Newcomb also declined to discuss the case other than to say the board of directors now is confident that the center is being run properly and that the programs it facilitates are far too important for the town to lose. Those include youth archery, bingo, volleyball, cup stacking, aerobics, gymnastics, Meals for Me, a teen center, painting, guitar lessons, dance classes and numerous other programs. Last week, the board of directors went on the offensive by circulating its first statement since the Newport Board of Selectmen decided to keep $100,000 that was appropriated at town meeting for recreation purposes instead of giving it to the community center.

“[The center] has been the focus of several news articles and rumors of late,” the statement began. “The board of directors of SVCC would like to take this opportunity to assure our program participants, volunteers and supporters that business will continue as usual at the center.”

The statement explained that the community center is a nonprofit organization separate from the town of Newport and outlined numerous activities scheduled for the next few weeks.

Some patrons are aware of the controversy. Mary Rumery of Pittsfield was at the center Thursday playing bingo with about 40 other people.

“It’s hard to make a judgment when you don’t know all the details,” she said.

Sherry Vigue of Pittsfield, who was also playing bingo, agreed. “We just don’t know enough about why it’s happening,” she said.

Newcomb said responding to such sentiments is difficult because she and the board have been advised by investigators not to discuss the situation.

“People just don’t know all the facts,” she said. “We’ve tried to hold our tongues and not do any mud-slinging.”

Newcomb said the board of directors’ next task is to rewrite its budget and look for ways to recoup the $100,000 in lost revenue from the town of Newport. The community center’s budget in the current year is about $247,000. Newcomb said solutions might include additional fundraisers and possibly approaching surrounding towns for support.

Adam Noyes, who was named recreation director for Newport when selectmen ended the town’s financial support for the community center, said his goal is to put children first.

“All I care about is that the kids get a fair chance,” he said, adding that numerous volunteers have stepped up to help start a baseball and softball season this summer. “It doesn’t matter to me whose name is on the jerseys.”

Rouse agreed.

“I would like to think that we can act as adults and put this together without messing things up for the kids,” he said. “After all, that’s why we’re here.”

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