By Gretchen Webster
WESTPORT — After delays caused by the pandemic, rising costs and supply-chain problems, bids to renovate the Gillespie Center emergency shelter and food pantry on Jesup Road will be sought in June and work is expected to start this fall.
Final steps in the approval process for the project —accepting $1.2 million in federal funds and a federally mandated 15-year deed restriction on the town-owned property — were approved by the Board of Selectwomen on Wednesday.
The programs housed in the 80-year-old town-owned structure are operated by Homes with Hope.
Originally expected to cost $500,000, the project’s price tag grew as renovation plans became more complete and construction costs escalated, according to Elaine Daignault, the town’s human services director. The project also has been approved by the Board of Finance and the Planning and Zoning Commission this month.
Among the renovations planned for the building are a redesign that will improve access and safety; allow shelter residents to stay in the area where they are housed, and clients using the food pantry will be able to meet with staff in another part of the building. Those needing case management or other services will no longer from have to pass through the shelter portion of the building to access help.
The project also includes upgrades to comply with Americans with Disability Act requirements for restroom accessibility and replacement of the roof, Daignault said.
An isolation room with special ventilation to keep sick residents separate from others, a dumbwaiter to carry food up several floors, and other renovations to bring the building up to code, such as improved utility systems, are also part of the remodeling project.
“We are very excited to get the ball rolling on this,” Daignault said, estimating construction work will take about eight months.
First Selectwoman Jennifer Tooker praised Daignault, Building Official Steve Smith and Assistant Town Attorney Eileen Lavigne Flug for work they did on what Tooker called a challenging project.
“I’m incredibly proud of the leadership we’ve had working on this,” the first selectwoman said. “The upgrades are desperately needed.”
One member of the public, John Suggs, a former Representative Town Meeting member, said he was worried that the wording in the resolution “to renovate the Gillespie Center to prevent, prepare for, and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic,” might result in the funds being pulled back by the federal government. The federal Centers for Disease Control has officially ended the pandemic, Suggs noted.
“I’m very concerned that someone or some entity could hold us liable for fraud … we appear to be at risk if anyone wanted to claw back those funds,” he said.
Flug said the state had approved the town’s application for the project, which is federally funded and administered by the state. “I don’t’ think there’s any possibility that these funds will be rescinded,” she said.
The resolution to approve the 15-year deed restriction and acceptance of the grant funds both were approved unanimously by the selectwomen.
Freelance writer Gretchen Webster, a Fairfield County journalist and journalism teacher for many years, was editor of the Fairfield Minuteman newspaper for 10 years and teaches journalism at Southern Connecticut State University.