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East Hartford To Sell Childhood Education Center

Willowbrook School Purchase Is Goodwin College's Latest Acquisition Of Real Estate Near River


July 26, 2010

EAST HARTFORD The town plans to sell its early childhood education center, the Willowbrook School, to Goodwin College, a move that would represent the college's latest acquisition in a growing real estate portfolio on the east banks of the Connecticut River.

If the town council approves the $1,025,000 sale, Willowbrook could remain at its current location on the east side of town for as long as a decade. Part of the bidding requirements laid out by the town specify that the board of education can lease the property back from the buyer for 10 years at a fee of $1 per year.

For Goodwin, that would mean allowing Willowbrook programing to continue uninterrupted while the college constructs a new, 34,000-square-foot $16 million building for an early childhood education magnet school on six of the adjoining acres.

Willowbrook School is now operated by the East Hartford Board of Education and houses four programs Head Start and the Willowbrook School Readiness Program, both for ages 3 - 5; Birth to Three, for children with demonstrated delayed development; and preschool special education.

The town council is slated to vote on the proposal Aug. 3, after a public hearing on the issue at town hall at 6:45 p.m.

If the sale is approved, the new building will be just one piece of a larger expansion on Goodwin's 30-acre campus.

The college increased its enrollment to more than 2,000 students from fewer than 1,000 in 2004, according to the school, and it is planning to open three new magnet schools for different ages with a combined enrollment of 1,100 students over the next few years. The early childhood education program would accommodate 240 pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students in 16 classrooms, according to a plan released by the college. The new school, which would draw students from East Hartford as well as neighboring towns, would serve as a laboratory for Goodwin's early childhood education degree program.

Democratic Mayor Melody Currey has called the sale a win-win for the town. She said the influx of cash from the sale would provide much-needed revenue, and she praised the addition of the planned early childhood magnet school. The town would also get additional state funds in the form of payment in lieu of taxes, Currey said.

"Bringing a college presence to the town is a tremendous plus for the community," said town council Chairman Richard Kehoe, also a Democrat. Since Goodwin undertook its riverfront expansion, "there's been tremendous improvement in that area," Kehoe said. "This is one more piece of Goodwin College's plan for the riverfront. I see it as a real benefit to the town."

Goodwin has said that the new program will provide opportunities for its college students as well as give children a chance to learn from the college's instructors. "Goodwin College understands its role in the education continuum," Todd Andrews, the school's vice president for college relations and advancement, said in an e-mail. "We as a college have a responsibility to be involved with education at all levels, not just college years."

The college's growth has drawn criticism from some town Republicans, though, who question whether East Hartford is getting enough in return for its river real estate.

"We're almost giving the property away," said Councilwoman Patricia Harmon, after a tour of the Willowbrook building. Harmon said she was unconvinced that the building should be sold at all. "If you've got something that's working and it's working well and it's in good shape, why sell it?"

In 2006, the building was assessed at $2,617,870, considerably more than Goodwin is planning to pay for the property. But town Deputy Assessor Wallace Inkpen said that assessment has no bearing on market value, and reflects only the potential cost of rebuilding the facility. Though $860,000 was put into the building's exterior walls and roof in the early 1990s, depreciation could mean the value of that investment is now almost nil.

Both the town and Goodwin College hired independent firms to appraise the property's market rate, with both estimates landing under the $1 million mark.

The town put the building up for sale after being approached by Goodwin. Though Currey said she had expected interest from other parties, the college was the only bidder. Town officials say the lone bid was the likely result of the location and highly specialized nature of the property, although some Republicans have complained that there wasn't enough of an effort to solicit outside interest in the land.

Goodwin says it has no plans to demolish the Willowbrook building, and that when the town moves out of the school, it will continue to use the facility.

East Hartford Superintendent Mark Zito said that he was not concerned about the possible sale. The Willowbrook programs will have "more than enough time" to move from the current location to a new one in the 10-year time frame allowed by the lease, he said. He also said that the soon-to-be vacated East Hartford-Glastonbury Elementary Magnet School building on May Road will give the district added flexibility in determining the school's future location.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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