The long-simmering senior center issue moved to the front burner in recent weeks. City Council members have heard plenty about the topic from senior center users who are vehement in stating the need for a new center, and we’ve heard backlash from other citizens who perceive the senior center supporters to be a whiny special interest. I’ve commented on the topic in public meetings of the City Council, butÂ I’m overdue in attempting to explain my current views and recent actions here.
Past statements. Elsewhere on this website (specifically, in this series of comments from 2004 and 2005 and in this issue statement from 2007) I documented some of my perspectives on the matter of Oak Ridge’s senior center. In a nutshell, what I said was that the new senior center promised nearly a decade ago continues to get delayed and is not likely to become a reality soon; the current location at the Emory Valley Center is an inferior facility and lacks a central location; and that Oak Ridgeâ€™s seniors and the Cityâ€™s leadership need to do some new creative thinking about how to best serve our large senior population â€“ with or without a new building.
Something I didn’t emphasize in those earlier statements is that the primary purpose of the senior enrichment center is social service. The center is a key part of a support system for people who are “aging in place” in our community. One service of the senior center is the senior nutrition program, providing both “meals on wheels” for the homebound and a daily hot meal at the center for those who can get there to enjoy it. Also, the center provides information and other resources for health maintenance, avoiding scams, and other matters of particular interest to the senior population. Recreational programs offered at the center are not just cheap entertainment for people over a certain age, but are intended to help prevent social isolation (for example, of persons who are living alone after the loss of a spouse) and to induce people to take advantage of services that they may need. Government-supported senior centers with similar programs are operated all over the United States, and are generally recognized to be a vital part of a quality community. Some people have told me “I’m a senior citizen and I don’t use that center, you should shut it down.” Those people have a valid perspective, but the fact that they personally do not have a need for the services of the senior center (possibly because they enjoy better health and more financial resources than those who use the center) does not prove that the center does not address a real need.
Recent developments. Since I wrote those earlier statements, we’ve had some creative thinking on the subject of the senior center. Users of the senior center got louder in their complaints about the need for a new facility, there were indications that the center might be evicted from the Emory Valley Center (which still is an inferior facility), and in the fall of 2007 the City Council asked the Elder Citizens Advisory Board (not all of whose members are senior citizens) to make recommendations on a facility that could meet the center’s programmatic needs. Meanwhile, Roane State Community College proposed that the City should donate $1 million toward a campus expansion, and in exchange seniors could use space in the community college facilities.
ECAB recommendations. The Elder Citizens Advisory Board (ECAB) provided an informative report on the facility requirements for an effective senior enrichment center, and (in cooperation with city staff) identified a facility that could meet those needs for roughly half the cost of a new building. The now-vacant Trinity United Methodist Church building has more than enough space (19,000 square feet) for the senior center’s programmatic needs, has rooms in appropriate sizes and shapes, has a kitchen suitable for use by the nutrition program, is in excellent physical condition (it was recently renovated), is in a more central location (the Robertsville Road-Jefferson Ave intersection) than Emory Valley Center, has adequate parking, and is not currently on the tax rolls. It is for sale at a price around $1.2 million. ECAB members judged that the senior program could move in without renovations, but staff and architecture/engineering consultants estimated a renovation cost as high as almost $1 million (of which only some $300,000 to $500,000 is considered “necessary”). If the rent that the city now pays for the Emory Valley Center space were instead applied to a mortgage on this building, it would cover most of the purchase price. Purchase of the Trinity property would provide a long-term solution to the “senior center problem” at far less cost than a new facility — and I think it would provide a facility that we all would be proud of. Although the senior center’s programs would continue to be “just for seniors,” the facility could (like the senior center) be used for other city purposes.
There were good reasons for rejecting other options:
*The Roane State proposal was totally unacceptable. Not only did it offer far less space than the senior center now has at Emory Valley Center (which is in turn less than the ECAB judged necessary), but some space would be available only for part of the day, most of the recreational activities offered at the senior center would be impossible, and seniors would need to compete with students for parking, then find their way from one corner of the building to another to move between activities.
*The former Paragon fitness center building has some attractive features, but its total cost (including renovation) would be far higher than for Trinity, and for less space. Parking also could be a problem.
Back to Emory Valley Center. After City Council received the ECAB recommendation, city staff reviewed the options and came back with a surprising recommendation. They estimated that operating a senior center at Trinity would not only require capital expenditures but would significantly increase operating costs for the senior center (for example, it would require an additional staff person to run the program, and the city would need to assume some maintenance costs that it does not face at Emory Valley Center). Meanwhile, they said that Emory Valley Center is available for at least 5 more years, that the departure of another EVC tenant will improve the situation for seniors, and that air conditioning could be added to the gym there to make it suitable for dancing and other senior activities.
The staff’s Emory Valley Center proposal is clearly the lowest-cost option for the near term. Although the facility is inferior, it is not totally unacceptable, and it appears that it may be possible to negotiate improvements under the lease agreement. Looking ahead, though, I wonder if Emory Valley Center will not look like such a low-cost choice a few years in the future when the senior center is evicted from that building, Trinity is no longer on the market, and the price of new construction is even higher than it is today.
At our August meeting, Council accepted staff’s recommendation and instructed staff to negotiate with Anderson County for a renewed lease at Emory Valley Center, but we did not do so enthusiastically. Three of us (Hensley, Mosby, and I) tried to defer action in order to buy time to find financial support to reduce Trinity’s cost to the city (outside money may exist), and one member voted against the final action.
We can hope that something creative will happen before we have to vote on a new lease contract for Emory Valley Center, but I’m afraid Oak Ridge will continue dancing this senior center shuffle for a good long time to come.