The moment arrived, Deerfield Community Center Program Manager Julie Schwenn recalls, the night of the Great Pumpkin Hunt in October. Children and their families had had their fill of trick or treating at downtown businesses and senior citizen volunteers had dispensed with all of DCC’s candy. Then, for a little while after the official downtown festivities had wrapped up, people just hung out.
Being that kind of informal community gathering space for all ages was a big part of the vision when DCC moved into its 8,800-square-foot new space at Liberty Commons in mid-2019.
The Great Pumpkin Hunt “was the night we kind of looked at each other and said ‘this is a hub, that’s what we thought the center was going to be,’” Schwenn recalls.
In the months since DCC made the move from its former location on West Deerfield Street, a lot of things, from participation in its senior meal, after-school and food pantry programs, to community group and private use of its large event room, have exceeded expectations, Schwenn and DCC Board President Todd Tatlock said in an interview Jan. 16.
Reflections on the move will be shared at DCC’s annual meeting Monday, Jan. 27, from 6-7:30 p.m. at the center, 10 Liberty. St., Suite 130. The meeting will include adoption of a 2020 budget, an update on the final fundraising push for the $1.5 million needed to purchase, remodel and outfit the new site, and board elections.
The meeting is open to the public.
Through a combination of grants, donations and about $350,000 in bank borrowing, most of the $1.5 million cost is now covered. Only about $180,000 remains to be raised, Tatlock said.
Tatlock said the bank borrowing “is an amount that we feel comfortable with,” and hopes that fundraising can wrap up without adding to that. “Nothing would thrill us more than to be able to finish this project without increasing our bank borrowing,” Tatlock said.
It’s a good place to be in, he said.
“We’re waiting on what we would view as our last construction bill,” Tatlock said, noting that just a couple of things, including additional parking lot lighting and a nice sign on the front of the building, remain in the works.
“We don’t think we’re in a financial problem at all from the move to this building,” which is valued at about $1.7 million, he said.
In an interview, Schwenn and Tatlock walked through the various programs DCC offers, sharing highlights from the past year and their current status.
“Everything about this building has turned out really, really great. It just feels good,” Tatlock said.
Now, staff and volunteers are working on getting the message out that the doors are open.
“We want as many people as possible to know about the community center and what’s happening here,” Tatlock said.
Staff has a grand-opening planned for spring.
After School Program
About twice as many fourth-through-sixth-graders are attending the drop-in after school program as in the old center. Average recent attendance has reached 40, leading to the hiring of more after-school staff, Schwenn said.
Attendees, who pay a dollar a day, have access to a variety of rooms and activities, a very different scene than when children were crammed together in one small basement space at the old center, Schwenn said. There’s also outdoor play space.
“I think the biggest thing with fourth, fifth and sixth-grade kids is that they’re still learning how to interact with peers, and when they’re forced into larger groups, it’s good for some of them. But for some of them, it’s not good,” Schwenn said. “To not come in and right away not be forced into an activity is very important. They can have their own space, to listen to music, for instance, if they want to, without being interrupted by other groups that are playing a game or being too noisy.”
At the former building, seniors who came for lunch, cards and BINGO twice a week had to vacate, often before they would have liked, as the time approached for late afternoon activities like the food pantry and after-school program.
Now, Tatlock and Schwenn said, seniors can stay as long as they like.
The center has a carpeted senior lounge with three tables, a television, fireplace and wide windows overlooking a patch of woods. It has drawn senior cribbage players as well as community groups seeking small meeting space.
Lunch, cards and BINGO all happen in the adjacent Community Room, which can seat 100 and can be divided, Schwenn said. Being able to pull the divider between the groups involved in different activities has made things a lot more comfortable, she said.
“That was always a struggle in the old building, they were so close and on top of each other,” Schwenn said. “People that were playing BINGO couldn’t hear the caller sometimes.”
Normally, senior lunch numbers drop in the winter as many people head to warmer climates, but even with the seasonal loss of snowbirds, numbers this winter haven’t fallen, Schwenn said.
“Tuesdays are increasing, for sure, numbers-wise,” Schwenn said. “We have gained a lot of people who are not (snowbirds) who have started coming to our meals.”
Having a commercial kitchen at the new site has “been a huge help,” in preparing meals, Tatlock said.
Tatlock said plans are in the works to add a glassed-in vestibule on the west side of the building, where seniors could easily be dropped off and could safety wait for rides home. He said that’s the latest morphing of what began as an idea to add a covered carport drop-off.
The carport plan was deemed infeasible due to the loss of parking stalls that would have been required to make traffic flow well, Tatlock said. Local fundraising that was done for the carport will be applied to the vestibule, he said.
Privacy is no longer an issue on food pantry days, something really important in a small town where everyone knows everyone, Tatlock and Schwenn said. A dedicated entrance at the back of the building allows pantry users to come and go without staff and others using the center’s other spaces to even know they’ve been there. Volunteers run food pantry days.
“If we sit in our offices during food pantry we could not tell you who came in to use the food pantry, how long they were here, or what they took,” Schwenn said. “That privacy is definitely there.”
At the old site, with the sole entrance on West Deerfield Street, “it was so visible and out in the open,” Tatlock said.
The old food pantry was also small — a large closet, really, Schwenn said. With two users going through at a time, that was a problem.
“You might as well have been grocery shopping with the other person that was there. All the conversations were overheard,” Schwenn said. “If you lost your job and were here because of some food needs, you were saying that in front of a whole bunch of people.”
Numbers are up at the pantry, which she credits at least in part to a higher comfort level, Schwenn said.
“We’ve definitely seen some new faces,” she said.
“It’s really made a big difference,” Tatlock agreed.
“We underestimated what the interest would be for our Community Room. I guess we knew at some point that it would be a hub but it’s becoming that sooner than we thought,” Tatlock said. “Almost every group you can imagine has been in here from Boy Scouts to Girls Scouts to 4-H to Lions.”
The Town of Deerfield now holds it regular board meetings at the center, and contributed $30,000 toward the building campaign in exchange, Tatlock said.
Tatlock called the arrangement with the town “a relationship that has worked.”
The Deerfield Public Library bought its annual gingerbread house-making activity to the center during Deerfield Family Christmas, and a craft and vendor fair formerly held at Deerfield Lutheran Church was moved to DCC in November.
Tatlock and Schwenn said interest also continues to grow from people wanting to rent the Community Room for private events like birthday parties and baby showers.
Rental fees for the Community Room are higher than renting the former building, Schwenn and Tatlock acknowledged. They said fees rose in part on the advice of other area community centers, who said DCC’s rates were lower than the regional average.
“It’s a larger space to heat, to have electricity for and to set up and clean up after a rental,” Schwenn said. “We need to be smart about our budget and how we’re covering the expenses that happen when someone borrows our space.”
For local non-profit groups seeking the room for a meeting or activity, the usage fee is waived, Schwenn noted.