MIDDLESEX — Less than a decade ago, Stoneham's local Boys & Girls Club, seeing membership and programming decline as the bedroom community's population grew older and grayer, jumped off the literal and figurative deep-end in the hopes of making some splashes aimed at boosting membership.
In one of those gambles, leaders from the non-profit risked quite a bit of fortune on a hard-to-refuse offer to take over the Hall Memorial Pool grounds off of North Border Road in 2014. The arrangement entailed a first of its kind partnership between the youth organization and the Mass. Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), which due to financial cutbacks, had struggled in the two years prior to keep the outdoor pool and wading park by Spot Pond operational.
That public-private arrangement, made permanent after a one-year trial run, was proceeded just a year earlier by yet another huge decision: To expand the club's reach to include neighboring Wakefield's children and teens.
It's now a full seven years after the first of those major moves, which resulted in the rebranding of the non-profit as the Boys & Girls Club of Stoneham and Wakefield. And according to Adam Rodgers, the club's chief executive officer, he and other managers can't scoop up buildings quick enough to keep pace with growth.
Last month, citizens at Stoneham Town Meeting learned the local non-profit is eying its biggest expansion yet: The reconstruction of the Boys & Girls Club's longtime headquarters off of Dale Court by Recreation Park.
Seeking a zoning amendment to be sure the 50-year-old building can be rebuilt by the edge of one of the community's largest public parks, Rodgers made clear club officials are in the beginning stages of the planned rebuilding initiative. But after daring to take some big chances nearly a decade ago, Boys & Girls Club officials are more than willing to dream big yet again.
"We're serving more kids than we have in the past 20 years," said Rodgers in a recent interview. "It's been a real period of growth for the club. From a budgetary standpoint, we're four times bigger than we were even five-years ago."
"We're still very much in the early stages, but that building we're in is coming up on its 50th anniversary. Our board has been looking into building a new clubhouse on that same location over the next few years," said the non-profit CEO.
Ignoring recent decreases in participation due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in a mints-long closure of club facilities and further curtail current operations at 50 percent capacity, the Boys and Girls Club of Stoneham and Wakefield now has roughly 1,200 full-blown members. According to club officials, besides those regulars, at least 5,000 children from both communities participate in at least one of the non-profits various programs each year.
Renting out the first floor gymnasium of Wakefield's American Civic Center, club officials have recently established a new teen center in the same downtown section of Main Street in the neighboring town. The club is also eyeing the conversation of the former Molise Restaurant, located just across the street from its main building in Wakefield Center for other youth initiatives.
The organization has also retrofitted the Hall Memorial Pool area by Friendly's Restaurant in Stoneham to include a brand new splash park, which opened in the summer of 2018. For a state-run pool facility that was reportedly hemorrhaging cash and nearly 25,000 gallons of water a day, the outdoor swimming grounds has generated untold programming opportunities for the youth organization, which initially had to raise $80,000 a year in private donations to offset property maintenance costs.
Also eyeing a new teen center in Stoneham, Rodgers and club officials had hoped a year ago to occupy a vacant bank across from the old Stoneham Middle School grounds on Central Street.
In a setback, that deal fell through, but according to Rodgers, club officials are now hopefully months away from finalizing a new arrangement to lease out space at the All Saints Episcopal Church off of Central Street for the teen center.
Once those second teen center space plans are finalized, the Boys & Girls Club will focus more heavily on the Dale Street rebuilding plan, which would replace the current 12,000 square foot property with a comparably-sized structure.
At a minimum, Rodgers envisions the new space being equipped with a state-of-the-art computer room and some renovated outdoor amenities by the public park. He also sees plenty of chances to create new programs for youths, as the current Dale Court facility is equipped with outdated facilities like locker room areas that are rarely used.
"Any new bulding would need community support and fundraising, but we don't have a final cost or plans yet," said the CEO. "It's an exciting time. We're really so much stronger by serving two communities."
Under Article 5 of Stoneham's recent Town Meeting, which due to the COVID-19 crisis was delayed from May to late June, citizens agreed to change Stoneham's zoning code to specify that non-profit organizations can pursue building projects within open space and parkland districts.
According to local attorney Charles Houghton, representing the Stoneham/Wakefield Boys & Girls Club, he was retained last fall in order to help the organization advance a proposal to demolish and rebuild its Dale Court headquarters, which are now roughly a half-century old.
During the course of his work, which included a request to write a legal opinion regarding whether such a pursuit was viable under existing zoning laws, Houghton stumbled across a confusing reference to the construction and use of structures as being allowed by special permit for "not-for-profit expositions".
Unable to say for sure what the term means, Houghton suggested the Boys & Girls Club could likely experience issues obtaining a bank loan to move ahead with the ambitious rebuilding project. Rather than risk such a funding rejection — on the basis that permits could be subjected to a legal challenge — Houghton met with the Planning Board in December to seek an amendment to the zoning language.
"I looked at the word and thought to myself, other than for something like the World's Fair, I have no idea what that word means," he recalled. "So [this proposal] is tidying up a bylaw that passed 50-years-ago."
With the new language including multiple checks to ensure oversight of such projects, including site plan and special permit application requirements, the Town Meeting measure easily obtained the two-thirds majority needed to pass.