Monday, April 25, 2005

Senior center gathers steam

Published in the Current

SCARBOROUGH (April 25, 2005): A Scarborough town councilor is teaming up with local seniors to back a $1 million referendum to build a senior center on the old drive-in property.

The bond would pay for a 5,000-square-foot building that would be constructed on the property named Memorial Park last week.

A draft of the proposed building is expected to be unveiled at a lunch meeting Thursday, May 26, at noon at the Hillcrest Community Center.

At an April 21 joint meeting of two town senior-citizen groups, Senior Series and Senior Voices, Town Council Chairman Jeff Messer offered the seniors a two-acre section of town-owned land, which was recently rejected by a group looking to build a YMCA.

He also said he would “try to gather the support politically on the council to make sure the question gets on the ballot” in November, which would require council action by early September. He estimated the bond would cost 2 or 3 cents on the tax rate.

“I think the time has come for seniors to have a place to call their own,” Messer told the group assembled at Scarborough Downs. He recalled the failure of the 2000 referendum on a community center, which would have included space for senior activities.

“We don’t have a senior center, and I think everybody here would be anxious to have one at some point,” Messer said.

While he said he would work within town government to get the question out to voters, “the seniors would have to be front and center from here to Election Day,” mobilizing voters to support the measure.

Messer asked the seniors to think of suggestions for what they want in a senior center, so the town can come up with a plan for a building where “seniors would have priority,” though if seniors were not using the space at a particular time the center “would have rooms available for other groups.”

He said the land became available when the Y turned down the two-acre parcel because it was too small for a building the size the Y is envisioning. Messer said the senior center would not have to have a gym or other large, expensive amenities, in part because of the Y.

“The YMCA has a lot of momentum” and may fill many of the roles of a community center, he said, but “the seniors really need to have something of their own.”

Sharing the load

The effort has brought together two groups, one private, organized and led by Elizabeth McCann – Senior Voices, which meets at Scarborough Downs – and the other town-sponsored and hosted by the Hillcrest Manufactured Housing Community, Senior Series.

“We’re happy that we’re going to be together a lot more,” McCann said at the first joint meeting of the groups.

One member of the audience proposed the two groups join permanently. Messer urged the groups to “act as one voice on this question,” whether or not they joined administratively.

Marty Craine, vice chairman of Senior Voices, backed the idea. “We better get out there and talk to people about this,” he said, suggesting groups use their membership lists and other contacts.

Ted Tibbals, who has attended meetings of both groups, spoke passionately in favor of the idea, and asked rhetorically who wasn’t in favor of it. When one woman, who had been worried about the proposal’s cost, raised her hand, it sent ripples of surprise through the room.

Tibbals suggested the senior center include meeting space; facilities for movies, slides and music; an office; a conference room for three or four people; a small exercise room with treadmill and exercise bike “with very limited equipment;” storage space and a kitchen because “certainly we’re going to want to have some meals.”

Other suggestions included an area for a monthly health clinic that could “start with a good scale” and perhaps include a visit from a nurse from time to time. Community Services would have offices in the building, according to Director Bruce Gullifer, but would also look for volunteers to help staff it.

Town Councilor Carol Rancourt, who works at the Southern Maine Agency on Aging, suggested that seniors take trips – perhaps organized by the town – to visit other nearby senior centers to evaluate their buildings and programs.

Tibbals said he liked the idea that seniors would have priority, because, even though the Downs and Hillcrest are generous to share their space, they’re not available whenever seniors want to use them.

“The important thing is we all work together,” he said, broadening his exhortation to the whole community.

“I’m not anti-education, but if I’m willing to approve these school projects, I’m willing to approve a senior center,”he said. “If the school department wants us to support their projects, they darn well better support ours.”

Political timing

Messer said the timing of this question in November is key to its success. Next year the schools are expecting to have a multi-million-dollar referendum on the ballot, to renovate and expand existing schools, or to construct new ones.

“November of 2005 is the most opportune time,” he said, also because it is an off-year election, in which seniors tend to vote far more often than younger people. In off-years, Messer estimated, at least half of the voters are senior citizens.

But, he said, with seniors making up about one-third of the town’s voters, younger people would do well to support seniors’ efforts, in hopes that the seniors would back the big school projects in the future.

Craine said seniors would continue to support education in town.

“We backed the schools, and we always will, and we’ll be backing another one,” he said, calling this year “the best shot that we’ll ever have” to get a senior center, which he said is “long overdue in this community.”

Town Manager Ron Owens said the town wants “to develop a project here that will be supported by the entire community,” and promised to “try to manage it to keep that cost down to the taxpayer.”

One senior asked if it would be better to convert the Bessey School into a center. Messer said that would cost $2.5 million to $3 million to refit, when a new building could be built for under $1 million and could later be expanded. Gullifer said the Memorial Park site could support an addition of 2,000 or 3,000 square feet to an original 5,000-square-foot building, and cautioned the seniors to “be careful not to outprice" themselves when coming up with ideas for the building.

Other questions included whether the building should be called a “senior center” on the ballot. One senior suggested calling it a “community center” instead.

“If it’s tagged a senior facility, we’re in the minority, it won’t fly,” said one senior.

Another asked if the school expansion project might leave available a building that could be, in part, a senior center, perhaps joined with a teen center and some town or school office space.