Residents: Don’t Give Up On Senior Center

By: Alan Pollock

Architect's rendering of a proposed senior center in West Chatham. 

CHATHAM — Though some want a stand-alone facility and others prefer adding on to the community center, nearly everyone who attended Tuesday’s forum on a new senior center want some kind of project to go forward.

Resident Frank Messina said there’s no question that the current senior center on Stony Hill Road is inadequate and needed replacement 10 or 20 years ago. “The seniors in Chatham have been waiting their turn” for completion of other big-ticket capital projects like a new fire station, he said. “Enough is enough.”

Hosted by the select board, Tuesday’s forum was moderated by consultant Brad Schiff and began by asking attendees if they think a new senior center is needed. While some people emailed comments saying the need has been overstated and the cost is too high, nearly everyone who spoke in person agreed that some solution is needed.

Resident Stan Mansfield said he and other project supporters visited senior centers in several surrounding towns, and “our senior center in Chatham is an embarrassment.” In the early 1990s, the council on aging was established in the building on Stony Hill Road, which was initially rented for that purpose. At the time, seniors were told it was the best the town could do for them. Today, seniors make up more than half of the town’s population, “and it’s still the best we can do,” Mansfield said.

John Poignand is a member of a men’s group sponsored by the senior center that offers a chance for simple socialization and conversation. “We started there, and we can no longer meet there because it’s no longer accessible to us,” he said. The existing building has serious deficiencies like inadequate or poorly-designed spaces for large gatherings and confidential one-on-one meetings, he said. Many seniors don’t take part “because the building is such an appalling mess,” Poignand said.

Those at the forum were specifically asked why they believe that previous senior center proposals have failed. Most recently, town meeting narrowly rejected a proposal to build an $8.3 million facility on donated land at 1610 Main St. Residents offered a number of potential explanations, including the meeting itself, which was held outdoors for COVID safety. The threat of rain that day likely kept some seniors from turning out, people said.

But others cited more substantive explanations. “Our latest failure was due to three factors: location, size and cost,” Mansfield said. Some people opposed the site and felt that the design was larger and more costly than necessary, he said. Resident Joan Craig said some seniors, like herself, felt that their ideas weren’t being heard.

“You have to listen to all of us, whether you agree with all of us or not,” she said.

Voters may also have wanted to see more facts and figures demonstrating the need for a new senior center, David Mott said.

“It’s great to want something. The key is, do you need something?” he said.

But resident Herb Bassett said it’s important to remember that a majority of voters favored the project but fell 98 votes shy of the two-thirds majority needed for passage.

“We really came close to the two-thirds majority,” he said.

Those at the forum had many ideas about the best location for a new senior center. Some suggested renovating the current building or rebuilding on the current site. Many others suggested co-locating a senior center on the site of the community center, a proposal that was explored several times in the past but never embraced. Resident Anne Timpson said an addition to the community center would be a cost-effective solution, with shared spaces and opportunities for intergenerational programming.

Park and recreation commission chair Meredith Fry rejected that proposal vehemently.

“Building on the community center is fundamentally wrong,” she said. It would destroy outdoor spaces currently used for children’s summer programs and would cause extreme traffic congestion, she argued. “The COA honestly deserves more,” she said.

Creating new spaces for seniors at the community center likely wouldn’t save much money, resident Robin Zibrat argued, since it would need a new kitchen and other dedicated rooms. In the summertime, the traffic concerns there are real, she added.

“There’s no place to park, there are people running all over the place, and the exit onto Main Street is often blocked,” she said.

Asked what new services or amenities they’d like to see at a new senior center, several forum attendees mentioned a swimming pool. Resident E.J. McKenna lent her voice to that group, “as someone who’s had to go over to the Woodlands in Brewster to swim,” she said.

Others at the forum stressed the need for space for an adult day program, so that clients no longer would have to be bused to a program in Orleans. Still others asked for programming in the evenings, in part to accommodate younger seniors who work during the day.

Public comment on a new senior center will be accepted through Friday at 5 p.m. on the community portal section of the town’s website. Together with suggestions made at Tuesday’s forum, the comments will be included in a report to be provided to the select board and council on aging, which will then discuss how to proceed.