CHATHAM — The ghost of the controversial fire station project hovered over selectmen and finance committee chair Stephen Daniel last week as they discussed a new senior center.
“The sense of the finance committee is that we've seen this movie before,” he said Feb. 20, recalling the escalating construction costs of the station. “A $2 million to $4 million project 18 months ago is now $8 million to $10 million.”
Daniel said the committee “supports and understands the need for an improved (council on aging) facility, including the prospect of a new one. We do not support the selectmen's November decision to accept the needs assessment and take (the project) to a 25 percent concept base. The committee unanimously thinks the project is too big, too ambitious. The committee thinks the town should locate a space first and then design the structure.”
Rather than focus solely on a new building, the committee wants to see planners “pushing harder on incorporating services that could be delivered in underutilized town facilities,” said Daniel, although he's aware that “the COA prefers to have everyone in the same place” to help monitor their well-being. He said upcoming repairs should extend the life of the existing facility long enough to allow consideration of more options.
In November, selectmen accepted a space needs study by Bargmann Hendrie and Archetype (BHA) that recommended a new senior center be 14,000 to 16,000 square feet, based on a comprehensive needs assessment by the UMass Center for Social and Demographic Research on Aging Gerontology Institute. Selectmen directed staff to draw up a funding article for this May's town meeting to conduct a feasibility study and hire an owner's project manager to develop concept plans for a new building. Next Tuesday, the board is scheduled to review the proposed article and decide whether to include it on the warrant for the May 14 meeting.
“We were quick to accept what was seen at the time,” Selectman Shareen Davis said last week of the board's November decision. While a strong supporter of a new building, she suggested that elements whose functions are provided elsewhere in town could be eliminated. “We have a library,” she said. “We have a gym within the community center.”
In concept, Selectman Jeffrey Dykens said, “I'm very supportive of a new facility.” He urged a closer look at its composition. “I don't think we need 100 parking spaces,” he said.
Vice Chairman Dean Nicastro, the board's liaison to the COA, said he was “very sympathetic to what they want to do” and that finding a site was among the selectmen's priorities. “We can't go to town meeting with something that's problematic,” he said. “We have to go with something that looks like the fire station at the very end.”
Speaking from the audience, David Oppenheim said he supported a new building, and knew where it should be built. “One of the most underutilized (buildings), though getting more utilized, is the community center,” he said. “The best location is next to it. I realize it's a ball field, but we have a lot of ball fields. It's close to the police, fire, schools, gyms, kitchens, (and) additional parking would serve both units.”
The Little League ball field (not to be confused with nearby Veterans Field) is “the best location for this center, downtown next to the community center,” Dykens said. “I've heard that the parking's not appropriate, that it's hard to get to in summer, (but) folks still use that community center in summer. If there is one location in town, and I know it would be extremely controversial with the baseball field. If I were to have a vote, that's where I'd put it.”
In November, Joel Bargmann of BHA reviewed site alternatives with selectmen. He said four town-owned properties met the minimum two-acre requirement for a new center: the beacon area on airport land along George Ryder Road, the Little League field behind the community center, and two sites on Middle Road across from the transfer station and wastewater treatment plant. The George Ryder Road site was dismissed due to potential future conflicts with the airport; Bargmann said the downtown site would eliminate the ball field, create program conflicts with the community center, and require that the existing parking area be decked.
Speaking from the audience, finance committee member Norma Avellar said a big new senior center set off by itself would “isolate our seniors even more. So many of our older people are alone. They need to be surrounded not just by others who are the same age. They need inter-generational experiences. You go to a zoo, the zebras are together, the giraffes are together, but people don't belong in a zoo. They belong in homes, communities, with other people.”
At the end of last year, selectmen had a request for proposals sent out seeking privately own parcels of land for a senior center. Two proposals were submitted; a 1.9 acre site at 1610 Main St. owned by Eastward Companies, and a 1.3 acre site at 889 Orleans Rd. owned by Susan Trask. Staff are still analyzing those locations.