Chatham seniors have been waiting more than a decade for a new senior center, watching patiently while other town departments get new, state-of-the-art facilities. Their turn was supposed to come this past spring, but because of the pandemic, they'll have to continue to be patient.
“We're in kind of a holding pattern,” said council on aging chairman Barbara Segall. In the spring, selectmen postponed a number of spending measures planned for the May annual town meeting, initially until a fall meeting. But with continued uncertainty about the virus, the board canceled the September meeting and shifted most articles, including appropriation of funds for a new senior center, to next spring.
Although it further delays the timeline for a new senior center and will likely increase costs, the postponement is ultimately a positive move, Segall said.
“Seniors are not going to be coming out to a special town meeting in September,” she said. “It's not safe, and it was never going to pass.”
There are other dynamics at work here as well, chiefly the fact that there are dueling senior center proposals on the table. The plan favored by the board of selectmen and the COA board proposes an $8.2 million, nearly 11,000-square-foot building at 1610 Main St., on land donated to the town for that purpose by William Marsh. An alternative plan, backed by a coalition of residents, proposes the same size building on school department land along Stepping Stones Road at $8.4 million.
The latter proposal was submitted by petition; the petitioners agreed to the postponement from last May and will continue to pursue it at the 2021 annual meeting, said backer Robert Hessler.
“If we need additional signatures” to ensure that the measure gets on the warrant, “we'll get them,” he said in an email. “It is my understanding that will not be necessary, but one never knows with our mercurial BOS.”
Hessler noted, however, that even if the alternative site is backed by voters, selectmen have included no funding mechanism within the article, which would leave the proposal “effectively dead” even if approved. That's the board's prerogative, he added, and a sure way to kill a plan they oppose.
Still, Hessler said he doesn't think either proposal is appropriate for the foreseeable future. “Next spring is still too soon to even consider such an expense,” given the pandemic's financial fallout, he said.
Segall's view is that the Stepping Stones proposal is just a tactic to stop a new senior center from being built. “There are so many obstacles” to using that site, she said. There are constraints to the location, it is in a residential neighborhood, and perhaps most critical, it is on property that the Monomoy Regional School District leases from the town. Releasing the land, part of the Monomoy Middle School campus, requires approval by the school committee, which has already voted not to do so.
Proponents of the Stepping Stones Road location say it would facilitate intergenerational programs among seniors and middle school students, and would be easier and safer to access than 1610 Main St., which is in the center of the West Chatham business district along Route 28. Those who back the Main Street site point to opposition to use of the Stepping Stones land by the school committee as well as the fact that the center would be built in a residential neighborhood, while the West Chatham location offers the opportunity for seniors to interact with local businesses. Safety improvements to Route 28 along the West Chatham corridor will make it easier and safer to access the 1610 Main St. site, they say.
Selectmen Chair Shareen Davis said the board will follow through on its commitment to put both proposals before voters in the spring. It's likely there will be some tweaks to the measures as well.
“I expect we will see reviews and revisions of articles deferred and vote to place and recommend, accordingly,” she said in an email. “I expect there will be some refinement of costs on the COA given the year delay.”
Despite the complications, the need for a new senior center has not changed, Segall said, and if anything has increased. While the current center on Stony Hill Road remains closed to the public, the COA staff continues to work on programs to meet the needs of the community's seniors. The agency also recently took over grocery and pharmacy delivery duties from the town's emergency center volunteers.
More than half of the town's residents are over 60, and a community needs assessment done several years ago projected the number to continue to grow. The current building, built as apartments and repurposed after it was purchased by the town, is inadequate in both space and ability to accommodate needed programs.
The postponement has its benefits, Segall said, including providing more time disseminate information about the project, including financing. Seniors need to know that borrowing for the project won't impact the tax rate, because the cost will be offset by reduced payments on other town debt that is maturing.
While it will push construction of a new senior center out by more than a year, the delay is understandable and even desirable, Segall said, especially for the safety of vulnerable seniors, who have suffered disproportionately during the pandemic.
“This isolation is terrible for seniors,” she said.