Ann Arbor seniors, task force consider options under threat of Senior Center closure
The Ann Arbor Senior Center is in a humble, aging structure in the corner of Burns Park.
Created from a refurbished stable, it has a small commercial kitchen and a few meeting spaces occasionally rented out for church groups or family gatherings.
But for Laura and Tudor Bradley and about 500 other Ann Arbor area residents, it’s one of the best places to meet up with frieneds for bridge games, movie nights and social lunches.
“It’s a place to retire to,” Laura Bradley said. “This is my social group.”
That gathering space is one of a few Ann Arbor Parks and Recreation facilities that are getting a hard look as city officials eye budget cuts. A task force that began meeting last week is discussing ways to keep the center.
Earlier this year, City Administrator Roger Fraser proposed closing the center, which brings in little revenue to offset its cost. It also duplicates services -- such as language classes -- that are available elsewhere in the city.
But there is a larger, more intangible social value for regular users who are largely between the ages of 70 and 90, users of the center and city staff members recognize.
For instance, Laura Bradley said she might not have found out for days about the death of one of her friends recently had it not been for the news that flies around the center.
The question is not whether the city would like to keep the center open, but whether it makes financial sense, city officials say.
A city task force made up of neighbors, city staff and council members, aging experts and center users is trying to find a way to save the local facility or soften the blow for local users who have come to rely on services there.
“I can’t say the goal is to keep the Senior Center open because the (city council) resolution really asks that staff with citizen input evaluate options for either sustaining it in a way that’s fiscally responsible or if that proves impossible, then we have to make sure those activities remain available and accessible to seniors,” said City Councilwoman Margie Teall, who is heading the task force. A solution is needed by December because city budget talks expected to occur in the first months of 2010.
Other facilities cost the department much less to operate or even generate revenue. For example, Cobblestone Farm on Packard Road has more than 30,000 visitors a year. It costs the department about $265,000 a year to run, but it also generates about $258,000 in revenue.
Other programs, such as the Argo Canoe Livery, actually generate money a small amount of revenue.In 2008, the Senior Center brought in about $17,000, but had a net cost of about $153,000.
If this were all about the math though, it’d be an easier decision, said Jayne Miller, Community Services Administrator for the Parks and Recreation Department.
“When you look at the population we’re serving, even if services are provided elsewhere for them, this is their social environment,” Miller said.
Thus, the regular bridge game is more than just a past-time. For some seniors, it is one of the only quality social interactions they get. And that value is hard to quantify, she said.
“For them to go to another location would be very difficult That’s another piece that makes this more difficult,” Miller said.
At the task force meeting, center director Pamela Simmons pointed to several ideas that users of the center had brainstormed for making it sustainable. The Parks and Recreation department is hosting a picnic in Burns Park on August 22 to raise awareness and money for the center.
During a recent lunch, several seniors said they’d be willing to pay and make other contributions to help keep the center.
But after many had paid years worth of taxes and made other substantial community contributions, many also felt the city should be giving greater financial consideration to benefiting the older population of Ann Arborites.
“I think the city should remember what these people have contributed and cut us a little slack,” said Ann Arbor resident Liz Gleich, who uses the center.
There’s also a long-term issue about whether senior citizens of the future -- the looming population of aging baby boomers -- would even be interested in the services that the senior center of today offers.
That question may guide the conversation going forward about what would best serve local seniors and what would create the most sustainable model for keeping the center open. For instance, some centers in Chicago have tried to create intergenerational environments and cater to younger seniors who prefer the coffee-shop environment.
Other centers have tried organizing group trips as fundraisers or advertising for a need of donations. Other ideas included creating additional fees for using the center and renegotiating instructor contracts.
Local seniors say they will continue to look for ways to make it more sustainable and hope that the threat of it closing won’t become a reality.
“They are going to lose a place they will regret,” Laura Bradley said. “It’s a pace to grow older. I’ve met so many people, seniors, here and found commonality as a group. I don’t know where else we’d find that.”
Photos by Mark Bialek for AnnArbor.com. Photo 1: Fred Otto of Ann Arbor leaves the Senior Center. Photo 2: Laura Bradley of Ann Arbor talks about the Ann Arbor Senior Center.
Tina Reed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or find her on Twitter @Treedinaa.