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Expanding senior center reconsidered

Many of Oak Harbor’s older folks play bingo and pinochle, exercise, make crafts, plan trips, polish rocks and engage in all kinds of other activities in one of the most crowded senior centers in the Northwest.

A 1995 study done by city consultants found that the Oak Harbor Senior Center only had 0.89 square feet for each senior citizen, which put it at the bottom room-wise in the state. The senior center in Anacortes, for example, had 2.65 feet per senior, or about three times the space.

Since then, the problem has only become worse, according to Oak Harbor Senior Center Interim Director Howard Thomas. The population of seniors has increased —17.9 percent of city residents are age 50 and older — but the only new space created for seniors in the last 16 years is the temporary building for the adult day care.

As a result, Thomas is taking a second look at a proposal to expand the center, which was shelved in 1995. “The need still exists,” he said, “and it’s more acute than it was eight years ago.”

The difference now is that Thomas is proposing a more modest expansion which could be funded by a combination of public and private grants, local donations and money the city has set aside for expansion.

The 6,800-square-foot Senior Center was originally built in 1986. The construction was funded by a $750,000 Community Development Block Grant, which is federal money administered by the state. The center is meant to serve all of North Whidbey. Originally, the center’s operations and activities were funded by the city, Island County, and donors and the participants themselves, with each kicking in a third of the cost. Nowadays, the seniors and donors pay a larger total percentage.

In 1995, the senior center received another grant for studying the feasibility of expanding the building. The study found that there was a need for expansion and proposed nearly tripling the size of the center to 1,800 square feet. The pricetag was set at $4 million.

Clarence Ness, a senior center advisory board member, was involved with the study eight years ago. He said it essentially got shelved because of the high price tag and the lack of funding.

But he argues that the center is a very valuable part of the community and expansion deserves a second look. “It’s a real advantage for people who don’t have much family around,” he said, “but sometimes it’s impossibly busy.”

Now Thomas has dusted off the old plan and has proposed some changes and new strategies. First of all, he supports a more modest expansion of only doubling the size of the center. He points out that the senior population is growing, but it hasn’t grown as quickly as projected in the study. While the study estimates that there will be more than 17,000 seniors in 2010, Thomas said it’ll probably be closer to 13,000.

Thomas said the smaller expansion will cost about $1.2 million. His very preliminary blueprint for the expanded center includes a computer lab, a multi-purpose room that can hold up to 200 people, storage space and dedicated bingo room. Most important, he said, is bringing the adult day care inside the building. It’s currently and temporarily housed in a modular building next to the center.

Having the program inside the center, Thomas said, would provide “a nice transition for people who use the center as they grow older.”

“It’s a familiar surrounding,” he added. “They won’t feel like they are being shuffled off to somewhere else.”

He’s relatively optimistic that the center can raise the funds through a combination of sources. He said his first step will be to ask the senior center advisory committee to recommend that the city council gives him permission to apply for grants.

It’s definitely a long-term project. Thomas hopes to apply for another community block grant, application for which are due in September. In addition, he’s looking into a variety of corporate and private sources, such as community grants from a Paul Allen charity.

He also plans to raise money from the senior center membership and local sponsors — such as Island Thrift — which have historically given the center a lot of financial support. For example, when Thomas won a Boeing grant in 1997 for a senior center bus, it took the members just two weeks to raise $18,000 in matching money. Most of it came from individuals.

On the other hand, local residents tend to vote against tax increases.

“My goal,” Thomas said, “is to raise enough money to not need to get a bond. We might as well forget about it if we have to go to the ballots, though the voters could surprise me.”

According to Thomas, the advisory committee is already aware of his proposal. The members assigned Ness to work with his to start to refine the plans. So far, Thomas said everyone’s been supportive of the idea. He’s put up a sketch of the possible outline of the expanded building in the senior center and asked people to write comments.

“If you don’t plan, you won’t have anything happen,” Ness said, though he admits raising funds locally is a big challenge.

City Councilman Eric Gerber, who’s also on the committee, said he feels the expansion would be “a wonderful project.” He pointed out that the city has a building fund for the senior center, which was set up years ago and has grown to about $100,000.

“The exciting things, I think,” he said, “is that the city does have some starting funds available.”

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