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EDITORIAL: White Elephant on Main Street?

Incorporating a Senior Center into the Prescott School building offers the opportunity to address crucial municipal challenges with a single bold stroke. If we fail to grasp Prescott’s importance to the Center, we risk turning our backs on a once-in-century opportunity. Later, we will wake up to find a huge white elephant on our doorstep. Now is the time to execute a vision that will turn Prescott and its surrounding property into an historical, architectural and community asset. The first step on this path is to locate a Senior/Adult Center in the building.

Of course, Prescott should not be considered unless it would work well as a Senior Center/Adult Center. Fortunately, COA director Kathy Shelp has reviewed preliminary plans and says that a very good senior facility can be located here. She has concerns with parking and secondary access, which would need to be addressed. But she has also shown that the building can support a very good Senior Center/Adult Center.

By locating a Senior Center/Adult Center here, it would be possible to provide an anchor ‘purpose’ for the building that would allow a cascade of other important initiatives.

Prescott is a historically significant structure. Despite being newer than colonial-era buildings, it is as important an architectural icon. Prescott’s tall ceilings, huge windows, wide hallways and stairwells are an architectural statement of the belief in the power of public education in Groton, and in America’s role as a transformative exemplar of the power of public education worldwide. In its own way, Prescott is as much an expression of the American spirit, imagination and determination as any white-clapboarded, Colonial-style structure on Main Street.

Prescott is a large publicly-owned space smack in the middle of the Center. It already functions as an informal town common for many outdoor events while also serving as an informal municipal parking lot. As Groton’s population grows and changes, we need to figure out how to use this large building and its adjacent land as public space of the future - an important element of Groton’s dynamic ‘public square’.

We all love the dispersed, open spaces of rural Groton. But we also need and love the ‘density’ of the Center, as a meeting space, as a space for exchange of ideas, for networking and conversation. An area of density adds to the cultural dynamism of the town. The ‘density’ of a city produces a broad networking affect that many people love. We can have a small piece of that ‘cultural density’ right here in the Center if we make Prescott a comfortable, convenient place for the public to gather and access the rest of the Center.

There can be no doubt that renovating Prescott will not be cheap. But, unlike any of the other proposed sites, Prescott’s historic importance would allow substantial expenditure of CPA funds for renovation. If a significant portion of CPA funds were dedicated to renovating Prescott in the years ahead, the actual tax increase is likely to be lower than increases needed for other Senior Center sites.

CPA funding seems to work best when spent on large, well-thought-out projects. Certainly the Surrenden Farm project has been a great success. In our view, renovating Prescott is on the same order of importance as the Surrenden Farm project and is worthy of substantial CPA funding.

There are significant challenges to making Prescott work, including the challenge of surrounding wetlands. However, Prescott offers a special advantage to resolving wetlands issues as long as the town owns it. Under Groton’s zoning bylaw, portions of the wetlands bylaw can be waived under a ‘public good’ clause. This does not mean that wetlands issues are ignored willy-nilly, but simply that there is more flexibility in addressing wetlands issues on such a site. With the active cooperation of the COA, Conservation Commission, Selectmen, Planning Board and dedicated town residents, Prescott can become part of a better town center, a better Groton. Let’s start the process by locating our Senior Center/Adult Center in the Prescott Building.

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