The Hampden Recreation Department currently operates from the gymnasium of the old Hampden Academy, now called the Skehan Recreation Center. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Hampden wants to know whether it’s feasible to build a community center that combines some aging facilities and provides a new home for the recreation department. If so, the town is looking into where it might be built.

The modern facility could include a gym with basketball courts, kitchen, walking track, senior and teen centers, a conference room and small meeting rooms. Those were priorities residents identified in a recent survey.

A committee of residents, elected officials, town employees and representatives of Regional School Unit 22 met remotely for the first time Tuesday to begin exploring options. While the group currently is working without a budget, Councilor Ivan McPike said he expects town councilors would support funding a future study to determine the cost of a community center, once the committee makes a recommendation.

The center would not be built with taxpayer funds under preliminary plans. Construction would be paid for with grants and donations raised during a capital campaign, not through a bond issue that would increase property taxes. In addition, the community center could not be constructed on town-owned land next to the Lura Hoit Pool on Western Avenue as originally envisioned.

That lot is too small for a community center and parking if the building includes everything residents prioritized in a recent survey, according to Economic Development Director Amy Ryder.

The department currently rents the gym, completed in 1978, and some office space in the old Hampden Academy, for $1 a year, and the town is responsible for maintaining the space. Hoteliers Danny and Carla Lafayette purchased the facility in 2013.

Now called the Skehan Recreation Center, the Hampden Recreation Department operates from there but would move to a newly built community center, which would allow the town to offer more programs.

In the survey completed by 104 residents, 85 supported the idea of a community center in town but just 37 thought it should include the Edythe Dyer Community Library on Main Road North, also known as Route 1A.

The library, located in a former private home built in 1981, does not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and bringing it into compliance is expected to be cost prohibitive, Ryder said Tuesday.

However, Ryder said, “the library is considered to be unique and is cherished by the community.”

The town and RSU 22 will work together on getting more residents to participate in the survey. It is now available on the town’s website, and Ryder said she would distribute it at senior housing developments in town. 

Hampden does not have a traditional center, such as a town common from which many New England communities grew and developed, and the town in 2019 worked on an initiative to identify a center and how it could become a more inviting downtown area.

A community center in the right location has the potential to become a town center for Hampden, Ryder said.

The group will meet again in six to eight weeks. In the meantime, Ryder will prepare a list of town-owned lots large enough for a community center and a list of other properties, including land owned by RSU 22 behind Hampden Academy on Western Avenue, that might be suitable for a community center.

Ryder also plans to have a preliminary footprint of a community center, along with parking requirements, to help the committee determine which lots might be suitable.