Chatham clearly needs a new council on aging building. The current senior center on Stony Hill Road doesn't even come close to meeting the agency's needs, and never has. It always seemed a forced marriage between form and function. Built as offices and apartments, the COA's operation was shoehorned in from the beginning. Where to start with the deficiencies? No real meeting space; poorly arranged offices; three levels to service a population that is often mobility challenged; and topography that's difficult for anyone to navigate. While the agency has done its best with what it has, the building was a boondoggle from the beginning and no more time or money should be spent trying to make this square peg fit into a round hole.
The town missed an opportunity in not folding a senior center into the community center more than a decade ago. The community center would be a much different place than it is today, but like the enviable model in Harwich, it would have allowed mixing of generations as well as a more centralized utilization of facilities and resources. But that ship, too, has sailed.
Now officials are asking staff to examine the former water department offices on Old Harbor Road as a possible location for a new senior center. To us, this seems like repeating past mistakes. Because the deed prohibits additional buildings on the property, radical remodeling of the existing 1860s-era home and barn would be necessary, leaving the COA in much the same position it's in with the present building – too small, on multiple floors, poor parking. The site is also not ideal; Route 28 is a very busy road in the summer. The property is much better used in conjunction with the neighboring school, for an expanded playground, for example. Truthfully, the house should either be moved to another location or given over to a nonprofit organization in need of office space.
As the COA found in its recent needs assessment, the senior population in Chatham is growing quickly, and with that will come an explosion of service needs, from support on many different fronts to social activities. An entirely new senior center is needed – perhaps modeled on the Orleans Senior Center, where a number of Chatham and Harwich residents attend a popular senior day care program – but right now there's a dearth of possible locations. Two commercial buildings that might have fit the bill: the former High Tide Restaurant in West Chatham and the former Campari's Restaurant in North Chatham – were snatched up by the private sector while Chatham officials looked the other way.
Rather than waste time looking at the Old Harbor Road property, selectmen should appoint a senior center building committee now to map out the COA's specific facility needs for the next two decades, based on the recent needs assessment, and search for a suitable existing building or site for construction of a new structure. There should be a one-year deadline, because the swells of the “senior tsunami,” as some have called it, are already visible in the distance.