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The case for a Blackburn Hall Community Center

May 4, 2015

Part 1 of a two-part series on 180.

While the Walpole Recreation Department continues its search for a new director, the department is being overseen on an interim basis by Council on Aging Director Courtney Riley.

This temporary arrangement may be unconventional, but instead of filling the vacant Recreation Director position, the town might consider permanently consolidating both the Council on Aging and Recreation Department.

The fact is that both departments have similar goals and would be a lot more efficient in delivery of services by sharing resources. The Recreation Department routinely offers programs geared to seniors, including the annual sand and salt program with the Department of Public Works, and they have the staffing wherewithal and expertise to coordinate events and activities. The Council on Aging, for its part, has a need for expanded space and would benefit from a partnership with a department that could provide that space. The Recreation Department has use of both Blackburn Hall and Studio East (former East Walpole library), with room for expansion at Blackburn, according to the 2012 Maguire Group report.

The fact is that senior centers aren’t and shouldn’t be just for seniors anymore. In the 21st century, Councils on Aging integrate all members of the community, including non-seniors. This is a goal that the Walpole COA itself has sought, as they noted in their presentation to Fall Town Meeting in 2014 that “a new center [would] provide better meeting facilities for all that use it, not just the senior population but also their friends, families and other Walpole residents.”

The distinction between a senior center and community center is important, because Town Meeting will vote Wednesday on whether to appropriate about $400,000 to design a new senior center.

The current Walpole Council on Aging is housed in a former cafeteria in Town Hall, a former school. One large room is used for both events and smaller meetings. The COA does not have adequate space for some of its events, private meetings, storage, and health services.

According to the Mass Executive Office of Elder Affairs, the town of Walpole has approximately 4,926 residents above the age of 60, with this number expected to rise to 6,438 by 2020. However, in their FY 2015 budget request, the Walpole Council on Aging stated that between April 1, 2013, and March 6, 2014, they measured about 392 people total who were “active” participants in COA activities. Even assuming that this number is an underestimate because of the difficulty of compiling accurate counts, the number is low enough to require a serious discussion about whether a full-fledged senior center, as opposed to a community center, is in the best interest of our community.

Given the great connections between the Recreation Department and the Council on Aging, a community center, with shared space between both departments, would be a very reasonable idea.

A Community Center would address both the COA’s current space needs and the Recreation Department’s identified future needs. The Maguire Group’s 2012 report indicated that the town will eventually need more space for recreational activities, noting potential space shortages at Blackburn Hall.

The Recreation Department currently utilizes Blackburn Hall as its primary user, but the Maguire Group report indicates that an addition could be constructed to Blackburn Hall.

This addition could be built for both departments to share. Pursuant to the COA’s own stated goal from 2014, a combined Community Center would enable the integration of non-seniors into the COA’s activities. The COA would have priority because of the lack of any other dedicated space of their own. Whenever there is available time, the addition could be used by the Recreation Department to maximize the use of the building.

Putting a Council on Aging senior center within a larger community-centered building is not unprecedented. Mansfield, for example, with a 60+ (age) population of 2,763, has had a joint library-senior center facility since 1989, and the senior center space is available for community purposes when not being used by seniors. Wayland, with a 60+ population of 2,953, is in the process of exploring a joint senior center-library that would be about 40,000 to 43,000 square feet in total. Sharon, too, with a 60+ population of 3,516, has their Council on Aging housed within a larger Community Center on Lake Massapoag. Dover’s Council on Aging, with 1,068 60+ residents, occupies a part of the Caryl Community Center.

It is also important to note that outside of Massachusetts, many senior centers, community centers, and Councils on Aging are operated at the county level or at a regional level. This maximizes efficiencies in tax dollars in delivery of services vital to seniors, but still delivers quality. Though regional senior centers are uncommon in Massachusetts, the Walpole COA reports that as many as 15 to 20 percent of Walpole seniors regularly travel to other town senior centers to enjoy activities that the Walpole COA is unable to offer. This means that, generally speaking, the Walpole senior center does not need to be massive in size. Regionalization is the wave of the future, and the Walpole COA needs a dedicated space of their own while also furthering its ties to other area senior centers to allow Walpole seniors to enjoy a full range of programs and services from all over the area.

So, in summary, a Council on Aging should have two goals in mind:

Serve not just seniors, but also non-seniors
Not attempt to provide every possible service to seniors, competing with other towns

A new “Community Center” addition to Blackburn Hall would provide office space for the Council on Aging staff, a program room, space for games and smaller meetings, and health rooms for medical services. Given the need for maximum handicapped accessibility, Blackburn Hall’s elevator and overall access would need to be upgraded, which has been a town goal for many years anyway.

In designing the addition, every effort should be made by the town to design it using blueprints from other communities, to cut design costs. Also, the addition should be free of “wants” rather than “needs”, like gift shops and bocce courts, that have been suggested in previous proposals for a new senior center.

In attempting to determine the cost and size of a proposed new Community Center, it is necessary to examine the sizes of other senior centers in the state with comparable senior populations to avoid compilation of incomplete data.

Although there is no comprehensive statewide database of senior centers and square footages, the state’s elder population statistics provide a basis for comparing Walpole to other towns, in terms of comparable senior populations. For the purposes of this article, below is a list of the square footages, if available, of senior centers in communities with senior populations comparable to Walpole.

Walpole’s 60+ population of 4,926 ranks 81st largest among all municipalities in the state, according to the Executive Office of Elder Affairs. Below are the square footages of the 80th-70th largest ranked communities, all communities that have slightly larger senior populations than Walpole. Not all senior center square footage information was available, and some data was only available through online publicly accessible Assessors records and may be simple estimates.

Wakefield (4,935 60+): 17,000 sq. ft.
Dedham (4,966 60+) – PROPOSED 16,000 sq. ft., still in the planning stages
Belmont (5,063 60+): 20,000 sq. ft.
Burlington (5,069 60+): could not be found
Wellesley (5,070 60+): 14,000 sq. ft., still being completed
Milton (5,103 60+): 6,852 sq. ft.
Somerset (5,119 60+): 18,000 sq. ft.
Wareham (5,201 60+): could not be found (shared space)
Chelsea (5,202 60+): could not be found
Canton (5,251 60+): 4,400 sq. ft., still being completed, renovated former K of C Hall
Milford (5,256 60+): 17,000 sq. ft.

In addition, here is a list of area senior centers, including all towns bordering Walpole, regardless of population comparability to Walpole:

Foxborough (3,318 60+): 6,000 sq. ft. (with preliminary plans for a 10,000 sq. ft. facility)

Norwood (6,235 60+): could not be found

Norfolk (1,512 60+): 5,600 sq. ft.

Medfield (1,932 60+): 11,000 sq. ft. (opened in 2008, $3.1 million, two-story, with multipurpose room, computer rooms, library, fitness area)

Sharon (3,516 60+): 14,000 sq. ft.

Westwood (3,426 60+): 5,000 sq. ft.

Dover (1,068 60+): could not be found, shared space in Caryl Community Center

Franklin (4,552 60+): 16,100 sq. ft. (opened in 2007, $6.2 million, common room, cafe, gift shop, exercise, computer rooms, greenhouse, project room)

Other communities in the state that have recently completed, or are in the process of completing senior centers include, in no particular order:

Marshfield (4,803 60+ residents) –
12,000 sq. ft (with unfinished second floor for future expansion)
Two-story, multi-purpose/dining room, reception area
Opened in 2003
$3.5 million

Webster (3,776 60+ residents) –
9,000 sq. ft.
Still being completed
$19.5 million (including 66 senior housing units)

Stoughton (6,120 60+ residents) –
7,500 sq. ft.
Full service kitchen, multi-purpose room, game/crafts room, health exam room, COA offices

Rockland (3,755 60+ residents)
9,273 sq. ft.
One-story, full service kitchen, 2,000-square foot cafeteria, fitness room, health clinic
Opened in 2014
$2.6 million

There is no denying that some communities have constructed large senior centers even with smaller senior populations, but there are also a few communities who have opted for more modest facilities even with larger populations. This is likely a result of each community’s distinct goals and funding wherewithal. Also, as in Walpole, a community’s total elder population is rarely equivalent to the actual number of people who use the senior center regularly.

However, with such variability in sizes of senior centers (from Mansfield, Milton, Canton, and Stoughton which occupy very small spaces, to communities like Wellesley, Dedham, and Belmont that have constructed larger facilities), it is difficult to precisely determine what the appropriate size of a senior center in Walpole should be.

Even many Walpole seniors would agree that a 20,000-square foot facility is too massive, while a facility smaller than 10,000 square feet is too small. An appropriate compromise, therefore, is somewhere in the middle that still balances cost concerns, between 13,000 and 15,000 square feet.

With a 5,000 square foot addition included with the 12,000-square foot Blackburn Hall, the total facility would expand to about 17,000 square feet, with about 5,000 square feet solely dedicated to the Council on Aging, and a majority of the remainder of the space shared between the COA and Recreation Department.

As of 2014, Dedham was assuming that a senior center construction costs about $283 per square foot. The Maguire Group, meanwhile, projects the cost per square foot of a senior center at about $250, and an addition to Blackburn Hall at about $300 per square foot. Using a conservative estimate of about $300 per square foot, plus related costs (such as design, insurance, and other “soft” costs) we can conservatively assume that a 5,000 square foot addition to Blackburn Hall would cost about $2.6 million. The construction itself would cost $1.5 million.

The biggest concern expressed by members of the COA to putting a senior center addition to Blackburn Hall is that there will be too much noise from users of Blackburn Hall. This issue can potentially be addressed by soundproofed walls, and thicker walls and floors.

Even if construction costs rise, $2.6 million is still a reasonable target even if the square footage has to decrease.

Non-construction costs include up to $225,000 in sitework, fees for construction contingency, construction escalation, and “soft” costs for design fees. The town would also have to pay bond interest costs.

Funding a Blackburn Hall “Council on Aging” addition, without an override – $2.6 million (with a 10-year bond):

$210,000 from the one-time sale of the old library
– This has been identified already by the town as a revenue source. This is available for expenditure. The old library sold for $213,000 in total.

$700,000 (POTENTIAL) from Community Development Block Grant
– This has been identified already by the town and the Maguire Group as a POTENTIAL revenue source, however the town has not been promised a grant.
– The CDBG grant funding, from the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development, can be used for infrastructure like senior centers and playgrounds.
– Walpole last received CDBG grant funding in 2009, for economic development.
– The average CDBG grant amount in the state is $741,000.
– Massachusetts communities received about $27.5 million in federal CDBG grant funding in 2014.
– If it turns out the grant is unavailable, simply reduce the cost of the community center by $700k, or increase the necessary private donations (see below)

$1,000,000 from private donations
– This is not unprecedented. The new library was funded in part by $1 million in private donations. The senior center would attract much of the same group of donors that the library did. In addition, the former Friends of the COA has previously said they could build a new senior center at least in large part using private donations. Since this proposed facility will be a “Community Center,” it would also attract the support of the Recreation Department and their ties to potential donors.
– Other senior centers that have been funded in part by private donations include Rockland and Cohasset.

$690,000 from the new library surplus
– This has been identified already by the town as a revenue source. This is available for expenditure. The surplus is actually $900,000 total, but the remaining $210,000 can be utilized for other facilities.

Total: $2,600,000 in 10 years

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