Traverse City News and Events

Senior Center Works To Secure Funding For Rebuild, Continues Outreach During Pandemic

By Beth Milligan | May 1, 2020

Funding and timing for a planned rebuild of the Traverse City Senior Center are in limbo after Grand Traverse County commissioners sent mixed messages Thursday on whether they’d allow a millage request for the project to appear on the November ballot. Navigating the approval process and securing funds for the rebuild are just some of the challenges currently facing Senior Center Network staff, who are also working to reach elderly residents isolated in their homes across the region and ensure they have adequate access to support and resources during the pandemic.

Grand Traverse County commissioners voted 5-2 Thursday to approve a resolution put forward by Commissioner Brad Jewett to express the county’s support for using a “private fundraising campaign” to build a new Traverse City Senior Center facility. That motion caught Senior Center Network staff off guard, who thought they were on the meeting call to continue discussions about putting a millage request on the November ballot to fund the rebuild. Traverse City and Grand Traverse County commissioners jointly agreed in 2018 to build a new facility to replace the aging Senior Center located on Grand Traverse Bay on East Front Street; the city owns the building, while the county runs its programming through the Senior Center Network.

Friends of the Senior Center, a nonprofit group that supports the facility, is hoping to ask county voters to fund the new building through a millage. The exact length and rate of the millage is still to be determined, though Friends of the Senior Center President Robert Steadman said he believed a 10-year millage paying for a $7 million bond would be the most efficient solution. A millage would allow construction to begin immediately to replace the deteriorating facility, while a private fundraising campaign could take at least 3-4 years to complete – with project costs climbing each year that passed, Steadman said. County commissioners passed a resolution earlier this month stating they would only put millage requests on the November ballot this year, meaning Senior Center supporters need commission approval by August for the proposal to go to a November vote. Traverse City commissioners have already signed off on a millage, and several county commissioners Thursday said they thought the county was moving in the same direction.

However, Jewett and other board members put the brakes on the millage discussion, saying they had significant outstanding concerns about the project. Jewett said original discussions for the rebuild focused on a community capital campaign as the main fundraising mechanism, not a millage. “The initial conversation was always about a community fundraiser, and I don't know that right now would be the proper time anyway to be putting millages on ballots,” he said. “I still feel that it's important. I feel the community would step up and actually contribute to this fundraising campaign, just like they did the (Easling) pool campaign.”

Commissioner Gordie LaPointe questioned the new design plans for the senior center – taking issue with both its size and parking capacity – and said the county had taken too “passive” and “subordinate” a role in the planning process. “I really feel sorry for the folks who put a lot of effort into this…(but) I think we need to really regroup from the county standpoint and take a look at how do we go forward with this project,” he said. Chair Rob Hentschel said asking county taxpayers to pay to rebuild a city-owned building amounted to “taxation without representation,” adding: “I think if the city wants the county to pay for it, they should sell it to the county...if the city wants to own it, then the city should pay to build it.” Hentschel also said he believed “it’s the wrong time to be suggesting raising taxes” during a pandemic.

Other commissioners, however – along with staff and project supporters – argued that the Senior Center is used by residents across Grand Traverse County and should be supported by them accordingly, rather than putting the burden on a handful of private donors. An estimated 75 percent of facility users come from outside city limits, according to Senior Center Network Manager Lori Wells. Commissioner Betsy Coffia said trying to position the issue as a “city versus county” one was counterproductive and that approving a motion to only support a private fundraising campaign was “going to block the voters from even having a chance to decide” if they’d support a rebuild. Commissioner Sonny Wheelock agreed, saying that while some details on design plans needed better clarification, it was up to the Senior Center's supporters to “sell this to the community.” If the millage request failed, Wheelock said, he would not support bringing it back again for a second try.

Coffia suggested a compromise of tabling Jewett’s motion to allow Senior Center Network staff to meet with commissioners, address their concerns, and bring a more detailed millage proposal back for consideration. That motion failed by a 3-4 vote, with only Coffia, Hundley, and Wheelock in support. The board then voted 5-2 to approve Jewett’s motion, with Coffia and Hundley opposed. Wells said she hoped the vote didn’t completely eliminate the Senior Center’s chances to put forward a millage and asked commissioners to remain open to a future request. “Saying today that we can’t even put this on the ballot in November would be cutting us right off at the knees,” she said, adding the group had been working for 20 years on rebuild plans and that trying to navigate governmental approvals between two different commissions had been a “difficult” process. Jewett and LaPointe both pointed out that the board’s motion did not preclude future approval of a millage request, but simply expressed support for pursuing private fundraising. LaPointe also offered to work with staff “to try to get this thing back on track,” though commissioners did not outline a process or timeline for how or when they’d be willing to revisit a millage proposal.

In addition to navigating the rebuild process, Senior Center Network staff are working on new ways to reach seniors who can no longer visit the Senior Center and are isolated in their homes during the pandemic. In conjunction with staff at the Commission on Aging – a separate county department that helps seniors live independently in their homes – Senior Center Network staff have conducted more than 7,300 wellness phone call checks on 6,000 senior residents during the crisis. A total of 27 employees in both departments are in touch with residents about their physical and mental health during those calls, as well as offering help for any immediate needs, such as obtaining groceries or getting to doctor’s appointments. Wells says some seniors are too scared to leave their homes during the pandemic, missing important healthcare appointments as a result.

The Senior Center Network is also broadcasting free recorded exercise classes on Traverse Area Community Media's cable channel and online to help seniors stay active, while the Commission on Aging has recently been able to resume lawn and cleaning services for its clients – many of whom have gone several weeks without essential cleaning or clothes laundering. Since March 25, 122 seniors have also received a total of 1,515 meals delivered to their homes in weekly packages. Senior Center Network Office Clerk Jacquie Wilson says the response from seniors to the outreach has been “gratifying,” noting that an employee is sometimes the “only person they’ve spoken to in three, four, even five weeks.” Any Grand Traverse County resident over the age of 60 can be placed on the call list by calling 231-922-4911 and will receive welfare checks from staff multiple times a month.

Pictured: Conceptual rendering of new Senior Center building. Photo credit: Environment Architects.

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