Town council approves new home for Trumbull veterans groups

TRUMBULL — A new home for Trumbull veterans and first responders took another step closer to reality this week when the Town Council unanimously approved the design of a new 5,000-square-foot building on the site of the Veterans Organizations building.

Funding for the project, estimated to cost nearly $3 million, is expected to come from state and federal grants, although building committee chairman Ray Baldwin said there is no guarantee Trumbull taxpayers won’t have to kick in some money.

“That possibility exists, I’m not going to say it doesn’t,” Baldwin said in response to a question from Councilman Jason Marsh at a meeting this week.

The committee has been at work on the building’s design since last January, and could begin work at any moment. That put the Veterans and First Responders Center ahead of many other projects also seeking funding, he said.

“When we launched this project, it was a pandemic, so work on raising funds was hampered,” Baldwin said. “We were able to move forward and get to a place where we have a shovel-ready project, which makes us positioned much better than other towns.”

Economic and Community Development Director Rina Bakalar said $128,000 in state grants had already been secured and would be used to cover the cost of demolishing the old veterans building and preparing the site. The project did not make Democrat U.S. Rep. Jim Himes’s short list for federal earmark money, but the committee has approached Connecticut’s senators, too, she said.

“The process is extremely political and competitive,” she said. “They received 50 proposals. The project has a lot of value and merit, so we’re going to push hard.”

The committee also plans to file a state bond request, which she said she was cautiously optimistic on the prospects.

“In the past, we were rejected because we weren’t shovel-ready enough,” she said. “Now we are.”

The new building will replace the existing building on Kaatz Pond just off Whitney Avenue. The current 2,800-square-foot building dates back to 1940 and has been town-owned since 1968. The town and local veterans groups signed a 99-year lease at an annual rate of $1 in 1981.

The building, which Baldwin described as “awful looking, but serviceable” on its best days, has been vacant since 2017 when the town condemned it because of structural damage. Baldwin said the town engineer determined that the building’s floor, which had settled several feet over the years, was irreparable. The building’s 1940s mechanicals and plumbing were also not up to modern codes.

“The problem was it was built on top of the wood from the old Kaatz’s ice house, and as the wood rotted it settled until it was unsafe,” he said.

The new building will feature re-configurable space for large and small gatherings, two multi-function rooms that can serve as classrooms and meeting space for the town’s police, fire and EMS and a unique “see-thru” design that allows sweeping views of the 17-acre pond, architect George Wiles said.

“Usually, there is a police station, a fire station and a town hall. This is a facility where everybody is together, and it’s very exciting,” Wiles said.

The main rooms can accommodate about 125 people, Wiles said. In addition to veterans and town use, it also will be available to rent for parties and other gatherings.

The veterans building would function similarly to Penfield Pavilion in Fairfield, where people can rent the space and arrange to have food brought in, Wiles said.

“The gathering room includes a warming kitchen, and there will be no significant food prep on-site,” he said. “The caterers will prepare food off-site and bring food up to service temperature. Then, afterward, all the utensils and linen leave the site.”

Wiles estimated the project’s cost at $2.4 million for construction, and another $500,000 for furnishings.

For that money, Baldwin said the result would be a versatile building that would fill a service gap for veterans of all ages between New Haven and Stamford.

“The building will be available to provide health clinics, health fairs and job training for veterans,” he said.

Councilman Tony Scinto questioned the budget projection, pointing out that the cost of building materials had skyrocketed in the past year and remained in short supply.

“Are you going to have a problem getting supplies for the building?” he asked.

Wiles said that was a significant concern.

“We have taken escalating costs into account somewhat,” he said. “No one can predict where this is going. A modest contingency covers it at this time, but if we were to wait six months, you’d have to take another look at the budget.”

Looking forward, councilman Carl Massaro questioned the building’s future operating budget and asked who would run it on a day-to-day basis.

Baldwin said the details on the building’s future operations had not been decided, but it would likely be similar to the town’s golf course.

“We’ve had discussions about making an enterprise fund, similar to Tashua Knolls,” Baldwin said. “The facility would have a committee responsible for maintenance and the cost of operating. It would have to be self-sustaining.”