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Andover voters overwhelmingly approve $2m for new youth center

By Katheleen Conti
Globe Staff / December 8, 2011
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It wasn’t a vote for president, or even an election, but Andover High School senior Leili Nickpour was proud that her first time exercising her rights as a registered voter was to support the construction of a youth center.

Nickpour was among the 2,037 registered voters at the Special Town Meeting on Monday, called by the Andover Youth Foundation by way of a citizens’ petition to request $2 million from the town’s operating budget to help fund construction of a $4.2 million youth center behind Doherty Middle School.

“I was very happy, especially since this is my first vote, because I did the [Andover Youth Services] trips since I was probably in fifth grade, and up until eighth grade I did them every summer,’’ said Nickpour, 18.“And the fact that I was able to contribute my vote meant a lot,because it was part of my childhood,’’ she said. “Looking back I know that when I see the youth center, I’ll be like, ‘OK, I helped a little bit in that.’ ’’

Young people who were not of voting age also showed up en masse at the high school in support of the proposed 20,000-square-foot center, which will be primarily funded by a grant of at least $2.2 million from the Andover Youth Foundation, a nonprofit organization formed 11 years ago, with the goal of building a center to house the programs created by Andover Youth Services organizers and volunteers.

So many residents showed up at the high school Monday that some had to be seated on the auditorium stage with elected officials, and others in the orchestra pit and the cafeteria, delaying the meeting by nearly an hour. It was the highest attendance at a town meeting since the first night of the 2002 annual Town Meeting, when 2,165 voters showed up, said Lawrence Murphy, the town clerk. The request passed by a vote of 1,422 to 401, well exceeding the required two-thirds threshold.

Monday night was the culmination of a mobilization movement led by young people who have benefited from the programs provided by Andover Youth Services, and who believe that a youth center will provide a greater benefit to the community, said Bill Fahey, Andover youth services director. Since word spread about the Special Town Meeting goal, Fahey said, he had received numerous text-messages, e-mails, and phone calls from people ranging from 12 to 35 years of age, wishing him luck and offering support.

At the helm since the founding of Andover Youth Services in 1994, Fahey wasted no time asking for funding for a youth center at the 1995 annual Town Meeting, but the effort failed.

“We were 63 votes short, but what was clear to me from the leaders, clear to me from the people of Andover, was you need to keep believing in the project, keep working at it, go and build a program, and come back and ask us then about the youth center,’’ Fahey, holding back tears, told voters at the meeting Monday.

“I can’t tell you how many texts I have in my phone right now from kids in California, New York, Germany, all over the United States, wishing me luck, thinking about the community, thinking about the place [where] they grew up, and I’m going to tell you right now, man, this is what this is about.’’

Diane Costagliola, chairwoman of the Andover Youth Foundation, said the turnout was an overwhelming show of support for Andover Youth Services, but also “a testament to everything that Bill Fahey and Youth Services has built in this town.’’

“It was so widespread, the reasons and the commitment of [people] being there. It struck a chord,’’ she said. “This is about community, and that crowd was about community. . . . Now we have a lot of work to do. We’ve gotten over the biggest hurdle, and we’re hopeful that in a short period of time we’ll kick off our fund-raising.’’

The foundation has $1.8 million in private donations and hopes that an additional $820,000 will come through after a new round of fund-raising, Costagliola said. The building’s projected operating costs, including utilities, supplies, and maintenance, are estimated to be between $90,000 and $100,000, which Costagliola said will be covered by approximately $60,000 in new revenue sources from Andover Youth Services memberships, programs, and rentals. Additionally, the Andover Youth Foundation has agreed to supply $30,000 annually to the town’s operating budget. Once the center is built, Costagliola said, the $10,000 that currently goes toward Andover Youth Services’ Pearson Street location will be put toward the new location.

Opponents of the $2 million request, like Mike Mosca of Pleasant Street, argued that taking money out of the town’s operating budget to fund the center would lead to cuts to other programs and services in a time when the economy is still in recovery mode.

“The youth center project itself is a Trojan horse,’’ Mosca told voters Monday. “We’re at a crossroads of needs versus wants, where any financial misstep, legal action, or act of God will place us in critical contiguous [Proposition] 2 1/2 overrides.’’

Brian Major, Board of Selectmen chairman, told voters that the town will not spend any of its $2 million until all the money from the Andover Youth Foundation has been used, and he estimated that that won’t happen until 2014. The money will be borrowed over a 20-year period.

Sean McCall, 18, a member of the Andover Youth Council, said that the first time he felt a sense of community in Andover was in the past year, when he began participating in Andover Youth Services programs.

“A lot of us are very fortunate and know that we’re fortunate to be part of such a great town, but we don’t have that kind of place that we all go to,’’ McCall said after the meeting.

“My parents grew up in Woburn and they’re talking all the time about how they went to this diner, they went to this park; we don’t really have something like that,’’ McCall said.

“I felt like the youth center could push that forward and make this town as a whole somewhere that is an incredible place to live,’’ he said. “It’s a place where you can develop a community around. I’m so ecstatic.’’

Katheleen Conti can be reached at kconti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKConti.

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