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Seniors reignite demand for a gathering place

Observer photo by Jess Wisloski Joan Stoddert (left) talks to residents at Eagle Crest, a senior living community, about possibilities for a senior center in Williston.
Observer photo by Jess Wisloski
Joan Stoddert (left) talks to residents at Eagle Crest, a senior living community, about possibilities for a senior center in Williston.

By Jess Wisloski

Observer staff

A number of years ago, Williston set about exploring the idea of building a community center, assigning a task force to investigate and analyze whether such a thing was needed, who would use it and what locations might be right for such a place.

Of the discoveries outlined in the final report: 1.) that senior citizens were a group that most stood to benefit from, and were most in need of a community space (rising just above teenagers); and 2.)  that it was unlikely Williston taxpayers would be willing to approve of a bond for creation of such a space, so other funding must be sought out.

“The task force concluded that there is not a pressing need at the present time, but within 5-10 years the town will need to respond—particularly to the needs of senior citizens,” the final report concluded. “Because the planning, fundraising, and construction process may take 3-5 years or more, the task force recommends that the process begin now.”

Almost exactly 10 years later, after the vision was scuttled for more pressing needs in the community, like a new fire station and police headquarters, nearly no action has been taken to bring a community center to fruition. But a group of seniors wants to revive that effort.

The group, which is calling itself the Williston Senior Center Action Committee, met recently at Eagle Crest, one of five senior housing complexes in town, and discussed with other area seniors what their vision of a center dedicated to serving their needs might include.

“Part of what we want is to know what you all want to see in a senior center? Do you support it? Are you worried about it? We’re trying to build a group of people that understand what we’re trying to accomplish,” said Vickie Walker, an organizer for the WSCAC, which is hoping to gain nonprofit status at some future date in order to do fundraising.

She said her group had yet to develop a budget for the new senior center, but ideas such as starting with a lot more recreational programming — gathering seniors together for interest groups, more frequent game nights and knitting circles — would fill a need the community already has, as well as give them a read on what the needs of local seniors are.

“We haven’t looked at grants and other things we need to look at — we have a lot of work ahead of us. There’s a lot of grants out there,” she said.

In the original report, while it qualified the construction numbers as being only based on 2006 estimates, a center devoted to one group’s needs would cost about $1.5 to 2 million, whereas a larger center that served other groups — such as a multigenerational facility — might cost more like $3 to $4 million.

Currently the town of Williston does provide some senior exercise programs, at the price of about $3,500 a year back in 2014, the Observer reported then. That same year Williston Seniors, a self-organized social group, took up a twice-monthly residency at the Green Mountain Masonic Center. While Williston Seniors is not run for or funded by the town, Williston does pay rent, at $850 a year, of the Masonic Center’s 50-capacity meeting hall on Bishop Avenue, across from the CVS.

One issue the members of WSCAC say with that space is that the group can’t hold any larger gatherings there, nor can the group grow with the space.

“On the books, we have about 35 members,” said organizer Joan Stoddert. “It’s very hard to get other people to join because we can’t move anywhere else. There’s not a lot of available space,” she said.

One place they’ve considered, and are trying to figure out how to afford, is the former Honey Thai restaurant at 2033 Essex Road. The asking rent, they said, is $8,500 a month, but the industrial kitchen, parking lot and central location with multiple rooms make it an ideal facility, they said.

“We could rent it out at night for special events that could bring in money. We could also run raffles, and run rummage sales over there. Anything that we could do to raise money,” Stoddert suggested, though she noted the reality of other costs, like the salary of a regular programming director, would also be needed to help run the center properly.

For the time being, Town Manager Rick McGuire said the costs of bulking up senior programming, now listed under “Senior Program Expenses” could be added to the town budget, and existing Recreation and Parks staffers could handle the workload, but that any moves to develop new programs or work on a facility should start now.

“If there’s an interest in expanding services, let’s expand services now, let’s not wait for a building,” he said. “Even that in and of itself requires changing the budget; we can do that, but we just need to know during the budget cycle what those costs are. And I would think that [increased programs and participation] would help build support for a senior center. If you want to offer a wide arrange of programs but the building’s too small or whatever, then let’s deal with that problem,” he told the Observer.

“We are approaching the budget right now. We’re working on a capital budget request, so now’s a good time to start the conversation.”

Nearby, at the Essex Area Senior Center, coordinator LuAnn Pioli said it’s taken nearly three years for her busy part-time job coordinating senior activities, use of the space and the volunteers who take calls and schedule rides for the free senior bus service in the community, to transform into a full-time position.

“I’m the first ever paid employee, and they started me out two years ago at 20 hours a week,” she said. The center was established in a space at Lincoln Hall — where many of the municipal  offices are — after the police department moved out many years back. “It was very volunteer-directed, and then I think the volunteers started to age a little bit, and they didn’t want to have to be here if they don’t want to be here,” she said. Enlisting the town’s support, the volunteers secured an employee who was hired by the Recreation Department, which pays Pioli’s salary. As of Jan. 1, she’ll be doing the job full-time.

Observer photo by Marianne Apfelbaum The former Honey Thai restaurant is one location under consideration for a town senior center.
Observer photo by Marianne Apfelbaum
The former Honey Thai restaurant is one location under consideration for a town senior center.

Even with an active membership of about 280, and many members from Williston, Pioli said the center has very little from the town, aside from her salary and the bus program, which is paid for with a grant, she said. The rent, because it’s in the town offices, is basically free, as are utilities, she said. “We were lucky,” she said, in terms of space and resources. “A few members asked if they could have this space just to gather; so that’s how this center began…we didn’t have to build our own building, it was here… and a lot of other things were in place. The dues of our members help keep our programs growing, and we have a couple of bridge tournaments that raise money, and we’re part of the Five Corners Craft Festival.”

Although getting funds allocated as a line item in Williston’s town budget is the group’s short-term goal, greater steps would require finding ongoing funding to keep a senior center afloat, including the cost of any paid staff.

Vickie Walker, who also submitted a letter in this week’s issue, calling for neighbors to support the effort, said she was happy just to hear from McGuire that developing more senior programming could be a priority in the coming year.

“It’s good! We’re not talking about the Williston Seniors group,” she noted, pointing out that the center would go beyond that membership to help all senior citizens in the area. “We’re talking about seniors in Williston. I’m glad to hear that’s where his head is.”

She said earlier efforts of her action committee, which drummed up about 400 signatures of support from various senior living complexes, ensured her that the need and demand exists in Williston, even though McGuire said a petition was not needed.

“We wanted to know we were on the right path. I don’t want to fail, because I didn’t understand what seniors wanted,” she said.

“I think you’ve got to start small,” she added. “We just wanted to show the Selectboard that we have the support of the seniors, that we’re on the right path.”