By Diana Bowley of the BDN Staff: DEXTER, Maine — It could have been shuttered, neglected or torn down like other historic buildings that have been victims of the economy, but it wasn’t.
Because of the dedicated efforts of those who could see its value to the community, the Dexter Town Hall was spared, rehabilitated and is in use today.
From public roller-skating to movies to a gathering place for senior citizens and teenagers to the latest addition of an adult learning center, the town hall has truly become a community center.
“The plan was to make the town hall back into a community center again, and it’s certainly headed in that direction,” Dexter Town Manager David Pearson said Friday.
That wasn’t always the case. Several years ago, the Town Council was faced with costly heating problems, so the building was essentially closed to the public. That bothered some town officials and residents, who sought and received state funding through the Community Development Block Grant program. Armed with a $165,000 grant that was matched by a local contribution of $42,500, the heating system was improved, windows were repaired and replaced, and an elevator to the second floor was installed to make it accessible to the handicapped. Along the way, the American Legion, Kiwanis Club and the Totally Teens Club supported the renovation with funds.
Since then, the building has been a hive of activity.
“It gets a lot of use, which was the goal way back when we starting fighting to get that grant,” Andy Conway, recreation director, said Friday. “There were plenty of naysayers when we started.”
Just recently the Piscataquis Valley Adult Education Cooperative opened a learning center inside the town hall. It joins similar learning centers in Milo, Dover-Foxcroft and Guilford.
“The coming together of this community, it really blew me away, because I didn’t expect it,” Thelma Regan, the cooperative’s director, said Friday. After SAD 46 joined the cooperative in May, the learning center opened in the American Legion Post, but as the center’s use increased and more days were needed for its operation, the move was made to the town hall. About 60 students are being served a semester, she said.
“I’m just real excited how this town came together from a little brainstorming idea,” Regan said. The idea about the move was presented to town officials and they supported it. The center moved into the former space used by the Totally Teens Club, which is now inactive.
“What I was thinking after I found out about this space is, ‘Wow, let’s give the taxpayers in Dexter a really big bang for their buck. They’re renovating this building. It’s a beautiful space. If we could get the learning center in here and put the sign out that we’re open for business, that maybe people would start getting interested in what’s going on,’” Regan said. “Our hope is to be the draw to get the young people back here again, and so it would be a real community center with education at the core.”
Helping to renovate the space for the learning center were instructor David Giles and his computer students at Tri-County Technical Center, who set up the computer laboratory; town facilities employees Eric Campbell and Duke Leighton, who were very “innovative” in reusing and salvaging items to improve the facility; and the Dexter Regional Development Corp.
“This is a collaboration between DRDC, the technical center, the town, the teen club and PVAC,” Town Councilor Judy Craig said Thursday. Some of the Totally Teen funds were used to help in the renovation, she said.
“This is what they call synergy, when things come together like that,” Pearson said. “It’s terrific, this is tremendous. We have a space that we haven’t been using at all, we had the project to rebuild the town hall and we want people to use it. This is great.”
Regan said she believes that synergy will only grow, and she has some ideas. “Part of the biggest barrier for young people to finish their diploma or their GED is quite often child care,” she said. So she hopes to encourage seniors to watch the children for an hour or so while the parent is taking tests, and in exchange, the volunteer senior will be given a voucher to take an enrichment class.
“That would be a wonderful arrangement and it would start blending the generations,” Regan said.
In addition, Regan said programs will present themselves for senior citizens — such as learning how to use a computer, so they can download family photos or communicate with their loved ones.
“It’s just the beginning of what can happen with a little creative out-of-the-box thinking,” Regan said. “It gives people new hope for further possibilities. This learning center has helped break down some of the barriers that got in their way.”
In addition, the building has given seniors a place to walk laps in the winter. It also offers space for recreation, special occasion parties, dances, baseball practice and voting.
“Now it’s become really, a viable place in the community for people to come,” Conway said.
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