CONWAY — A crowd of about 140 people turned out for the ribbon cutting at the new recreation center at Kennett Middle School on Tuesday evening.
The new rec center opened in late June just in time for summer camp, and according to speakers, making that deadline was no easy feat.
Last year, voters OK’d moving the center from the aging Conway Community Building and approved $700,000, with $350,000 pledged by Margaret and Charles “Sut” Marshall, to cover the renovations needed to turn the mothballed portion of the middle school building into a fully functioning recreation center, including restoring a gym that dates back to the 1930s.
During remarks at the gym, which was named for the Marshalls, Selectman’s chair David Weathers said creating a new use for the facility was a “long, slow process” that took about three years.
Weathers said town staff put a lot of time, thought and care into the project, which he said was accomplished with about $450,000 worth of donations. Only the air conditioning and the stage remain to be put in.
Recreation Director John Eastman gave heartfelt thanks all the sponsors.
“Most people who gave either their money or their time didn’t ask to be recognized, but I hope everybody sees the significance in what David (Weathers) said,” said Eastman. “It was a lot of work, and we couldn’t have done it without this community.”
He named Friends of Rec, selectmen, Town Manager Tom Holmes, former town manager Earl Sires and the Marshalls as key components in the success of the undertaking.
Eastman said Sut Marshall has been involved with Conway Rec for 43 years. “Sut coached me when I was 11 years old,” said Eastman. “It means a lot to me, and I want to thank him for that.”
After the ceremony, Marshall told the Sun he felt “overwhelmed” and “very happy.” He was pleased with the turnout at the ribbon cutting.
“The community came together, the school, the town, the contractors, the people and proved we could do it,” said Marshall, adding he hopes that people of all ages use the facility. “It’s my wish that adults will feel welcome here... It’s for the community.”
Town Engineer Paul DegliAngeli offered a short history of the project.
“Briefly, we did $1.1 million worth of work for less than $900,000,” said DegliAngeli. “That happened because John and his staff went out to the community and got donations. That happened because contractors like Don Whitelaw of D.W. Electric and Pat Murphy donated time. That happened because our contractor Meridian said, ‘OK, how do we help you get this done.’”
DegliAngeli said many people who have stepped into the gym said that they went to high school in the building or that they played sports in the gym. He said it was his “pleasure and honor” to work on the center.
Holmes described the sacrifices staff made to get the center open by deadline and on budget, which he said, was anything but certain at times. He praised Meridian Construction, the general contractor, for being a good partner.
“I know they worked early mornings, late nights and weekends without compensation,” said Holmes. “I know they traveled the valley searching for necessities.”
District 1 Executive Councilor Michael Cryans (D-Hanover) read a citation from Gov. Chris Sununu and also offered some remarks if his own.
“The new facility offers programs for people of all ages and interests and benefits people throughout the community,” said the citation. “On behalf of the citizens of New Hampshire, I commend the Marshall family for their kind gift to Conway community.”
U.S. Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan both had statements that were read aloud by representatives. Other attendees included Conway Democratic state Reps. Tom Buco, Harrison Kanzler and Steve Woodcock, and Carroll County Commissioners David Babson, Amanda Bevard and Terry McCarthy.
Bayard and Theresa Kennett and son Tanner were also there. A portion of the building is named after their late son, Bayard Winslow Chip Kennett II. Their family is the namesake of Kennett schools.
Eastman told the Sun it was extra-special for him to hear from people who recall when the gym was last used as a gym. He directed the Sun to Glenn Saunders of Kearsarge, who said, “I’m pleased to see it is being used again as it was in my time,” said Saunders, adding that when he was in high school there, the gym had a suspended ceiling and the roof structure was not visible as it is now.
“It looks wonderful,” he said.
The west end of the gym used to be the entrance. “We used to have vaudeville shows on the stage,” said Saunders. “That was kind of fun.”
The ceremony opened with remarks from the non-profit Friends of Conway Recreation’s President Joline Gushee, who called the ribbon cutting a “historic evening.”
Historic it was. According to local historian Brian Wiggin, the Marshall Gym was built in 1939 and then turned into classrooms in 1978.
Wiggin and Saralyn Smith of the Kennett High School Alumni Association put on a slide show of photos showing the gym’s history. (Smith said she will be posting the photos on the association’s Facebook page.)
Wiggin noted that the gym had been used as a gym for about as long as it was used for other purposes or mothballed.
During his talk, Wiggin recalled his first memory of the gym was going up some stone steps, where the addition is now, to enter the gym for his polio shot as a young student. Those steps were removed when the addition was built in the mid-1960s.
During the open house, people could tour the building. The Sun caught up with Jenn Wohlert and her son Alex Carr, 9, playing at a hockey style foosball table. They said Alex enjoyed the summer rec program and will be doing rec football this fall.
“It’s a wonderful place,” said Wohlert. “It’s a lot more convenient” than the Center Conway building.
Selectman Mary Seavey said her high school graduation took place there, and she also played sports and attended dances there.
“I’m thrilled,” said Seavey, who graduated with the Class of ’62. “When I first saw the (new) gym, I cried.”
Selectman John Colbath, Class of ’67, recalled that he spent many high school years doing plays on the stage. He vowed that the money will be raised to create a quality stage.
The Sun asked Colbath if his teenage self would have had any inkling that he would be a selectmen today.
“None whatsoever,” he said.