Scituate officials and seniors agree that the town needs a new senior center, but their visions on what it might look like are still miles apart.
Tensions are mounting between the groups as discussions continue over the space, the plans for which have been under discussion for months as officials lay out a master planning vision for the town.
Some seniors say preliminary plans for a 6,200-square-foot space are inadequate, and have begun to advocate for a space of at least 11,000 square feet.
“If they are planning a 6,200-square-foot [space], they are out of touch with what the needs are, and we were trying to bring that to light,” said Kim Ryan, a member of the Friends of Scituate Seniors group.
Seniors subsequently released a flier shortly before last Monday's Town Meeting outlining the deficiencies and calling current plans “pennywise and pound-foolish.”
By Thursday, town officials had arranged a meeting with the seniors group, a discussion both sides said was “contentious.”
“Their belief is we’ve turned, as a town, our back on them because we’re focusing on a middle school, new town hall, library, public safety building, and in that equation they are saying what are you going to do for us?” said Selectman John Danehey.
Danehey said it was a false perception, as the town was focusing on how to accommodate seniors alongside discussions of a new town hall, which might possibly be retrofitted into the existing Gates Middle School.
“After last week, I don’t know" where things stand, Danehey said.
Meanwhile, Ryan said seniors felt chastised by officials.
“Selectmen said they were disappointed in the flier and said it was causing divisiveness in the community,” said Ryan, who noted she did not attend the meeting. “They stressed that the Gates Feasibility Report is just a rendering. Many who attended felt selectmen were very disrespectful of their rights. They also felt the meeting was an ambush and felt they received a slap on the wrist for their bad behavior.”
If there’s one thing both sides agree on, it’s that the current 2,900-square-foot building with 18 parking spaces is inadequate.
For years, seniors have complained of the cramped space, inadequate amenities, and tired structure. In 2004, after receiving $1.9 million through a Town Meeting vote, bids for a projected structure came in too high.
Plans to create an 11,000-square-foot facility came up again in 2007, with seniors requesting $3.5 million for a senior and community center on Branch Street. But voters did not approve a tax-limit override for the funds.
With so much on the line on this third try, Ryan said seniors couldn’t afford to settle on something less. “I think it would be a waste of everyone’s time and money to create something that is inadequate,” Ryan said. “We need to plan for the future.”
Discussion on the vision will continue on Wednesday with a meeting at the Council on Aging.
Council on Aging Director Florence Choate said the board has already rejected preliminary plans for a 6,200-square-foot space, and are working on another proposal.
"Our board agrees with the Friends of the Scituate Seniors to this extent. The 6,000 square feet would never be enough to do the work we do here," Choate said. "I know it sounds rediculous when you consider the square feet here, but we have office spaces we have 3-4 people in that offer privacy. With the 6000 square feet you could never do that."
Choate also referenced the slew of programming offered at the senior center, and said the needs are only increasing.
Despite problems with the selectmen, seniors say they are still hopeful moving forward.
“I’m a little more optimistic,” Ryan said. “I think this topic has not been discussed in a long time. The seniors' needs have been overlooked for years and years. I think that it’s getting more attention and I’m hopeful.”
Selectman Marty O’Toole, appointed the liaison to the Council on Aging, will also be working with the group to develop consensus.
"I'm optimistic," he said. "I'm hoping we can resolve something on Wednesday, if not tomorrow night at the selectmen's meeting, talking about the same thing. I do feel optimistic. The Gates plan is not in stone."
O'Toole said his priority was finding a permanent solution everyone is happy with, most likely a larger option.
"We can't pass the seniors by again," he said. "If you go in the senior center … there is just no way. We have to do something.”
Ryan said O'Toole's efforts were encouraging.
“In his short time in office he has been very responsive to the Council on Aging, and seems willing to advocate for seniors' needs,” Ryan said.