September 7, 2010

Council to weigh merit of senior center proposal tonight

Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY – Tonight the Council will be asked to decide whether to pay the cost of building a senior center adjacent to the existing Boys and Girls Club on East Derry Road.
“Everyone agrees we need a senior center, and that a town this size should have one. The question remains, how do you fund it?” said Councilor Neil Wetherbee yesterday.
At a council meeting in March, Nutfield Senior Center spokesman John Moody outlined the plan to build a 5,000-square-foot addition on the Boys and Girls Club. Seniors would be free to use the rest of the 30,000 square foot club during the day and on weekends.
Proposed center would add 5,000sf to the Boys&Girls Club.
His proposal has emphasized that seniors would be getting the equivalent of a 35,000-square-foot center for less than $1 million investment.
During the March public hearing the council was asked to consider a $396,000 supplemental appropriation toward construction. That money was to be set aside until the NSC raised matching funds.
Since then, Moody has revised his request through email correspondences with council. He is now asking that the town consider paying the entire estimated construction cost of $760,000 – dividing the cost into two installments. NSC would continue fundraising another $240,000 to reach the $1 million figure, which Moody estimates would cover the cost of construction and center operations for two years.
He said there would be no tax impact to residents by using money the town is holding in its rainy day fund.
“I've answered all the questions I can at this point. Some questions the council had, about the program budget, I just can't answer yet.” Moody said. “As for what's going to happen, I've had no indication about what they're going to do at Tuesday's meeting. But if we don't get any money, we're dead. There's no way we can do it without the town's help, not in this economy.”
Also hanging in the balance is a federal non-construction grant for $396,000 that was allocated for staffing and equipping the center. It will expire in one year, Moody said.
Several years ago the council set aside $55,000 in a Recreational Facility Capital Project Fund for a senior center. That money is still available and could be used to offset some of the current request, which was recommended in March by Town Administrator Gary Stenhouse.
Objections to the plan have been raised by some residents who are against using tax money to build anything on land that is not town owned. Wetherbee said yesterday that while he applauds all that NSC has done to try and make this proposal work, asking the town to put $800,000 on the line right now to build something that won't belong to the town may be too risky.
Moody said the group had exhausted all leads on town properties over the past eight or nine years that could have been possible sites, including the Masonic Hall and the Pinkerton Tavern. Moody has said that by building on the Boys and Girls Club site, the two organizations would be able to share the expanded facility. Should the non-profit Nutfield organization fail, first rights to purchase the new building would go to the Boys and Girls Club.
Another proposed site was the Upper Village Hall which, at the time, was still town owned. An estimate of the cost to bring it up to speed was well over $1.5 million, and because the adjacent parking lot was owned by the East Derry Village Improvement Society, NSC would have had to work out some sort of deal to accommodate parking.
Since then, EDVIS has purchased the building from the town for $1 and is currently renovating the building using volunteer manpower and donated services.
Last week several current EDVIS board members polled said they would be open to revisiting how a the Upper Village Hall might provide a home for the town's seniors, should the current NSC proposal fail to gain approval by the Council.
Councilor David Milz, who is on the EDVIS board, said if Moody's request is put to a vote tonight, he will abstain.
“I wasn't around when EDVIS and NSC went around about this in the past. All I can say is that I see it could be a good fit, depending on what happens with their request to the Council for funding. I think the bottom line is figuring out how to get a senior center in town, and there possibilities to work together and make something happen, if we can get everyone to the table.”
He said currently EDVIS is in preliminary talks with Meals On Wheels, which is considering moving its operations from the Marion Gerrish Center to the Upper Village Hall. If that were to happen, expanding services to seniors, beyond providing hot meals, would be a natural progression.
David Barka, who serves on both the EDVIS and Meals On Wheels boards, said EDVIS is not competing with NSC in any way – but that a renewed spirit of cooperation should exist given the current economic climate, which has changed considerably since the building project was initially proposed.
“We'd love to have the Nutfield senior group join our efforts here, if they are interested. We have a lovely building we want to save and we want to make it useful,” Barka said.
Longtime resident Roberta Robie said she has been following the proposed senior center since its inception. She said believes the senior center belongs in the Gerrish Center downtown. When she learned that Moody was now asking for twice the money he had requested in March, and that he did so in writing rather than at a public meeting, she was disappointed..
“I'm saddened that he chose to make his pitch to council in a letter, in secret and out of the public eye,” Robie said.
Another longtime resident, Jim Barton, said he is still rooting for the NSC proposal to win support from the town.
“I started this idea nine years ago, when I was 75. Now I'm 84. I wanted to see this happen before they planted me in the ground,” Barton said. “Given the council hasn't done anything for the seniors of this town in nine years, I don't think $800,000 is a big number. The plan is ready to go. All we need is the town to support it.”

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