Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2008

Rafferty Center gym to transfer to county

Supplemental money sought to maintain building until more funds can be acquired

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A developer has reached an agreement with Montgomery County to turn over the old Good Counsel High School gymnasium in Wheaton to the county for use as a recreational facility.

The rest of the 14-acre high school property, which has not been used as a high school since Good Counsel moved to Olney in January 2007, is being developed by Dallas-based Centex Homes. Plans call for about 140 townhouses, 45 condominiums and six single-family homes.

A memorandum of understanding between the county and the developer will be signed by the end of the month to hand over the building located at 11601 Georgia Ave., also known as the Rafferty Center, and land to the Montgomery County Department of Recreation, said Keith Tunell, engineering and entitlement manager for Centex Homes.

The company had been in talks with the county about the future use of the 19,000-square-foot Rafferty Center since Good Counsel moved and Centex took full ownership of the property.

However, county planners and residents had called for preservation of the gym as far back as 2002, during the approval process for the site’s redevelopment.

Jeffrey A. Bourne, division chief at the Montgomery County Department of Recreation, said the department tried to identify other options in the Wheaton⁄Kemp Mill area for an additional recreation center after the high school closed but concluded that using the Rafferty Center was the best choice.

The county’s recreation department will meet with the County Council on Jan. 15 to ask for a supplemental appropriation of $150,000 to maintain the building until more funds can be acquired for a full renovation.

To ensure that the building retains its structural integrity and makes it through the winter months, supplemental funds are needed for facade improvements and other minor upgrades until more funds can be allocated for total renovation, said Natalie Cantor, director of the Mid-County Regional Services Center, which is serving as the county executive’s liaison with the community in the negotiations.

The entire project is expected to cost about $7 million, Bourne said.

Improvements would include a parking lot, new facade work, landscaping, additional office space, and game and activity rooms. No construction date has been set.

Tunell said he would like to see work begin on the building because Centex has begun selling units and buyers want to know about the county’s plans for the recreation center.

‘‘It’s not an asset now because the building is not looking that great,” he said.

Ultimately, the county would like to use the Rafferty Center in conjunction with the Wheaton Community Center, the area’s current recreation facility built in 1963, located nearby at 11711 Georgia Ave. The current Wheaton Community Center is about 19,000 square feet, around half the size of standard recreation centers around the county, Cantor said.

‘‘Wheaton is absolutely lacking in recreational facilities. And to compound the issue, there is no space to put a full-service building,” Cantor said. ‘‘What this will allow us to do is at least approach what full-service programming should be.”

The Wheaton Community Center is operated by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. There has been talk about transferring the building to the county recreation department, said Mark Wallis, a senior park planner with the commission. Community meetings would be held to make sure that residents and recreation facility users approve of any change in ownership.

The recreation department controls the programming inside the Wheaton center, but does not have authority for maintenance or improvements.

County Councilwoman Valerie Ervin (D-Dist. 5) of Silver Spring said the additional space the Rafferty Center would provide was significant in a dense area like Wheaton.

‘‘It’s very timely in light of the fact that so few opportunities exist in Wheaton and other built-out areas of the county for space for recreation programs,” she said.

Joan Rubin, vice president of the Wheaton Regional Park Neighborhood Association, said the community has hoped the rec center would transfer from Park and Planning to the recreation department and residents also want the additional use of the Rafferty Center.

‘‘This is a case where a neighborhood association was able to secure something that had very positive impact on the neighborhood and community,” Rubin said. ‘‘We fought very long and hard for that.”