In a few weeks, there will be only one town in Lower Fairfield County that does not have a Teen Center, a place where young people can socialize in an alcohol- and drug-free environment. And the town that will hold that dubious distinction is, most surprisingly, New Canaan.
Long known as a great town to raise a family, the teen center was built by community members who believed that this facility would improve the quality of life for many in the community. Over the past 14 years, hundreds of students, parents and staff have worked on its programs and operations. Thousands of members of the community have participated in programs that varied from band nights to cooking classes. Regrettably, that will end this summer as the Board of Directors of the New Canaan Center have announced that, due to financial constraints, they have no choice but to close the doors of the teen center permanently.
The Teen Center board of directors does not have sufficient funds to continue operating the facility after July. The building would then revert to the town of New Canaan. The town will then incur the $5,100 per month cost to cover electricity, oil, insurance, and other costs that relate to maintenance for the building. Alternatively, they could choose to tear it down.
Since the Teen Center was established, the non-profit organization has had to adapt to changing trends in teen interests, technology, the business landscape, volunteerism, and giving. Consequently, two years ago the board initiated several studies to help them identify best practices and future direction. They worked with the Harvard Business School, Community Partners who conducted a study on the need for a teen center and how to create financial stability. In 2013, based on their investigative findings, the conclusion was that there is an ongoing need for the teen center and town support is crucial to provide financial stability.
The Harvard Business School Study found that all but one of the teen centers in Lower Fairfield County receives significant town funding for operations and/or personnel. Greenwich’s Arch Street is funded by a substantial private donation that created an operating endowment. The business model in neighboring towns all show that town support to fund operating costs is essential to succeed.
Based on the learning from the research, the staff and board updated the programming offerings at the Teen Center. In the past year, they provided 122 programs and events for middle school and high school students and the community. Student programs and events included enrichment programs such as study skills workshop, yoga for teens, songwriting and recording, cooking, SAT prep; social programs such as Halloween party, movie night, ice cream social, ping pong club, band night; leadership programs such as Student Governing Board; and community service programs such as winter coat drive, Wounded Warrior Project dance fundraiser, and baking cookies for Waveny Inn.
Over the summer of 2014, a task force of Outback board members and two Town Council members conducted their own study of best practices, focusing on the operating and financial models of three neighboring teen centers with similar demographics: Darien, Wilton and Westport, all of which receive significant funding from their towns.
The Teen Center board first reached out to Health and Human Services Commission sharing the information from the studies and the usage data. This information was then shown to the first selectman with follow-up meetings including the two Town Council members that helped with the task force. Several options were presented in the fall of 2014 on how the Outback could partner with the town. The first selectman recommended vetting the proposals through the budgeting process and requested a business plan.
The Outback Board of Directors presented a workable business plan to the town selectmen to maximize resources and minimize duplication of services in town. It included a proposed partnership with Parks and Recreation to manage the center so that the town would have an indoor facility to provide indoor recreation for youth and families. Fundraising by volunteer board members and program revenues would continue to cover program costs. There was no further distribution of this information to community leaders.
The town declined to provide any support for the Teen Center. The Teen Center reached out to other community groups for partnership opportunities but none of these plans have proved to be financially feasible.
The Board of Directors feels that they have run out of options. Fourteen years ago, generous community members came together to build this resource for our youth, believing that the facility would be available for future generations of youth and their families. However, if there is no support from the town, continued operations of the New Canaan Teen Center are not viable.
—Submitted by Sangeeta Appel, president of the Outback Board of Directors