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Op-Ed Strategy is needed to provide a space for senior programming

By Belinda Gerry
Former Auburn City Councilor

This is my response to Auburn Mayor Jonathan P. LaBonte’s column in the August 4 issue of Twin City TIMES. The mayor doesn’t support the renovation of the Parks and Recreation vacant three-bay former parks facility and repurposing about one-third of the building up to the second bay for a Senior Citizens Community Center. This center would be available to all seniors.
This structure was built to last quite a number of years, is lightly used and is at ground level, making it accessible for anyone with mobility issues to enter or exit, providing easy access to everything the entire complex has to offer, both indoors and out.
This building sits beside the Hasty Community Center and, when opened, would be available to all seniors and possibly other community events. I think it is great strategy and an opportunity to magnify what is now offered our seniors and our community too.
The original concept to use this building came about a little more than a year ago—long before this current city council took office and created their new vision of the city’s long-term plan, as well as its five-year plan for capital expense— by a group of seniors who come to the Hasty Community Center to participate in various activities held there.
These individuals were willing to invest their time to make this work. Some are willing to volunteer time to keep the place open when Jan Biron, Senior Citizens Recreation Specialist, wasn’t there due to her part-time status or her attendance on a seniors trip/activity off site.
A tour of this building to assess its merits was done, and a list was put together of what was needed for it to work. Upon approval by our City Manager, Howard Kroll, it became part of the city’s Capital Improvement Plan for the budget this city council just passed. The project price tag is about $95,000.
The need for this new or extra space comes from the fact that, as the Recreation Department offers more programs and rents out gym time, there is competition for availability slots.
Seniors have met several times a month for years there. Senior Citizens Recreation Specialist Jan Biron, whose position was newly created by our city manager as first step in a strategic plan to expand senior activities, has to keep this in mind as she expands her programs.
She also has to find space off site when her use of the gym for a senior event gets bumped or postponed.
The mayor is wrong; it’s not just space for one senior group. All senior citizens can hold their monthly meetings and events there. It provides a safe place that any senior can drop in during the week, socialize, possibly grab a cup of coffee or light lunch, participate in a planned activity or even teach a class themselves or enjoy a program offered by those within our community once the frame work is built.
Staff time (and money) will be saved from not having to set up/break down the gym for every senior activity and free up space in the Hasty Center that’s used now to store all the seniors’ belongings, since they will be used in the new location.
Seniors’ activities can take place anytime (or other community events and rentals from those who rent space at Hasty’s Memorial Armory/Ingersoll Turf Facility), without having to open up the whole Hasty Community Center when it isn’t open. This too would create multiple cost savings.
I understand where the mayor is coming from about public participation. It’s just that sometimes, before you have public participation and gather community stakeholders to flesh out the details and direction of a project, you need to lay a foundation. Doing these renovations first is this foundation.
Lastly, I support and want to see the St. Louis Center flourish, but I can’t support the mayor’s suggestion to take $95,000 that has already been earmarked for the seniors’ center in Pettengill Park—a building that the city already owns—and give it to them.
I feel that this is a bad investment for several reasons:
We don’t own St. Louis’s Center. They don’t have an official plan with a time frame for their building to be renovated. We will be charged a fee for our use with no guarantee we can rent it when we need to.
Also, St. Louis’s Center is not actively doing any fundraising or really publicizing it, if they are. Parking is limited and there is no place for outside activities. If someone comes forward and buys their property, we’ve lost our investment.

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