FALMOUTH – On May 16, voters are being asked to allocate $9.5 million to design and build a new 17,000-square-foot two-story senior center next to the Gus Canty Community Center in the center of town.
The effort to build a new senior center to replace the existing overcrowded 4,000-square-foot building, built in 1974, is an old story. In this story, there are a lot of moving parts.
“Ten years ago, there was a different effort,” said Jim Vieira, who chaired a now-disbanded working group that selectmen appointed five years ago to look at different sites for the proposed new building. And even before the effort ten years ago, Vieira said, “in 2003, a previous group tried to get a new senior center and that failed.”
“We have had people tell us when we started, ‘We’ll never see it.’ And sadly, that is what happened.” – Jim Vieira, chairman of the Falmouth Council On Aging.
So it was 14 years ago, ten years ago, or five years ago that this effort first started. During this time, senior citizens, not surprisingly, were not getting any younger. And the town’s demographics have, meanwhile, been trending older.
“We have had people tell us when we started, ‘We’ll never see it.’ And sadly, that is what happened,” said Vieira, who is the chairman of the Falmouth Council On Aging. “We don’t want to lose another generation without giving them a building and an opportunity that they deserve.”
By September of last year when Doug Brown was elected Selectman and attended his first meeting as Selectman, he recalled, “I said, ‘You have been talking about the senior center for years. Let’s go forward. I’d like to vote on it.’ I pushed for the vote. Selectmen agreed,” said Brown.
But what selectmen agreed to go forward with at that meeting, a new senior center at the high school, is not what voters are being asked to vote on this election.
Plans changed. The proposed location was moved. It moved twice – from one field at the high school, to another field, and then to the center of town.
The plan voters are being asked to approve now is to build the new senior center where a playground now exists, next to the Gus Canty Center. On the other side of the proposed new building, on essentially the same property that is backed by the high school football field (and Commodores baseball field) is the Falmouth Police Station.
And, in an unusual step, voters are being asked to fund both the design and the construction of the new senior center with one step, and one vote.
“Typically, the finance committee wouldn’t agree to fund a project without plans first,” said Brown. “But they feel the same way the selectmen feel. This thing has gotten kicked down the road for so long that it is time to do this.”
But now there is a group urging residents to vote against the plan to build next to the Gus Canty Center. “It’s not back to the drawing board,” said Carol Murphy, a town meeting member who spoke at a recent town meeting against putting the measure on the ballot.
“This is about going back to the school and the school committee and getting a location on that campus somewhere,” said Murphy.
“This is about going back to the school and the school committee and getting a location on that campus somewhere,” – Carol Murphy, Falmouth resident
And Margo Finnell of Falmouth said, “We’re not trying to stop the senior center. We’re trying to stop the Gus Canty site. We realize a new senior center is long overdue. But we’re trying to get the best for the seniors that we possibly can. We’re trying to get the town to take into consideration many factors that have not been thought about.”
The working group that Vieira chaired for almost five years, until it disbanded, looked at 49 possible sites for a new senior center in Falmouth, said Vieira.
The group narrowed the list to four sites. The group was tasked with giving not one recommendation, but a group of sites.
Four sites – Gus Canty, the high school, a Brick Kiln Road site next to the Falmouth Dog Park, and the school administration building property in Teaticket – were then given to a consultant, Bargman Hendrie + Archetype Inc., of Boston.
In a 96-page site feasibility study by the consultant from December 2015, the four sites are ranked on page 27, using 24 criteria and giving each one equal weight. Some of those 24 equal-weight criteria include: overflow parking to handle special events, whether the site is sufficient for building and expansion, and sewer.
“There was reasonable amount of public support for the high school location in general. This came out in a number of different public meetings over the years.” – Town Manager Julian Suso
Those rankings, cited by more than one official to Cape Cod Wave, showed the Gus Canty Center ranked second of the four sites. Ranking highest was the Brick Kiln site next to the Falmouth Dog Park. Given those rankings, there are some interesting things in the report.
On page 11, in what is the “Architect’s Preliminary Report,” there is this about the later-ranked-number-one Brick Kiln Road site, “The site is not large enough to support the program building and parking. Due to the residential abutter and deed restrictions on the recreation lands the site area shortcoming is not easily overcome without additional cost to procure land.”
Even more interesting, given what this upcoming election is about, is the opening sentence of Phase 2 of the site feasibility study, on page 35, “The town of Falmouth requested that three sites be studied further in the second phase. Two sites at the high school and the Teaticket School Administration site.”
After years of study by the town, one site that was not requested to be studied further was the second-ranked Gus Canty site.
Vieira said of the Gus Canty site, “it’s safe to say it was the fourth choice.”
“It was never really a choice of ours at all,” Vieira said of the working group and the Gus Canty Center site. “Quite frankly, there were people on our committee that liked it, and there were several of our committee members who didn’t like it at all.”
“The first choice was the high school,” he said. One advantage was that it was “in the geographic center of Falmouth and accessible, really, from all points of town,” said Vieira. “There were a couple of different locations at the high school that we thought were viable.”
And Falmouth Town Manager Julian Suso said, “There was reasonable amount of public support for the high school location in general. This came out in a number of different public meetings over the years.”
“We’re not trying to stop the senior center. We’re trying to stop the Gus Canty site. We realize a new senior center is long overdue. But we’re trying to get the best for the seniors that we possibly can.” – Margo Finnell, Falmouth resident
When the selectmen made their request to study three sites in phase two of the feasibility study, Suso said, “It made sense to look at the high school.”
But that was at least a couple of iterations ago. Circumstances change. Or do they?
Vieira said, “I’m now going to put on a different hat. I am the chairman of the Council on Aging. It’s our opinion that with a free-standing building on that (the Gus Canty) site, we can make our programs work there. We are unanimously in favor of going forward with that project now.”
And, Vieira added “This is about aging and maturity.” The high school site, he said, “for whatever reason, isn’t going to work. It doesn’t matter why. Now let’s find something that does work.”
The first choice was the lacrosse field at the high school, said Brown. The second choice was the newer lacrosse field behind the high school tennis courts.
“The sites at the high school that were considered,” said high school athletic director Kathleen Burke, “the condition was always that they would replace the field before they took a field for the senior center.”
The first plan was to relocate the lacrosse field, next to Jack in the Beanstalk, at the high school, at an original estimated cost of “less than $100,000,” said Suso.
But that conceptual cost estimate underwent more scrutiny and by spring 2016 it turned out, said Brown, “there was an $800,000 to $900,000 mistake on the cost of replacing the field.”
And Burke said, “If you give up that prime spot, the burden shifts to the school department to go clear another five acres.”
The mission, said Suso, was “if we need to take an athletic field out of play, we need to replicate it. We can’t go in with a substandard substitute.”
Selectman Susan Moran said that when the selectmen learned that the cost of replacing the field was almost $1 million, “The board just really switched gears. We should have known this from the beginning. This put a whole different light on the topic.”
The next plan was to put the senior center on the newer lacrosse field behind the tennis court, which Brown described as “a lesser quality field.” The idea was that it would be less expensive to replace, he said.
“If we need to take an athletic field out of play, we need to replicate it. We can’t go in with a substandard substitute.” – Town Manager Julian Suso
As soon as that plan was announced, Brown said, “We started getting letters and phone calls. What are you doing, taking away a field? We had a lot of emotional responses from lacrosse players and dads who had helped build that field. And besides the emotion we heard, ‘You guys aren’t paying attention to the need for fields in this town.’”
Burke added that moving one field, either field, “doesn’t solve my problem of I don’t have enough fields here at the high school.”
Suso said that, at the high school, “many of the locations not occupied by athletic fields have wetlands, kettle ponds, and terrain and accessibility issues.”
A recent study of town playing fields commissioned by the town and finished in March by Gale Associates, Inc. of Weymouth suggested that the town needs nine new grass fields, or three artificial turf fields to accommodate the town’s needs.
And there is the matter of how long it takes for a new field to be usable once it is built. While waiting for the grass field to take hold, estimated to take more than a year, construction of a new senior center on an old field would have been delayed.
In October, 2016 selectmen changed their minds again and voted to build the senior center at next to the Gus Canty Community Center. Town meeting last month agreed. It is now up to the voters.
Brown said, “How many people have passed away waiting for this to happen? A lot. That’s not right. That’s not fair.”
Typically, the town would want to design a large project first and then estimate the cost and ask for that amount from voters, said Brown. “But after year after year of delay, we are asking voters for design and construction at one time.”
“The approach is available and certainly legitimate,” said Suso. “I don’t know how common it is throughout the Commonwealth, but town meeting voted to approach it this way.”
The idea is to speed up the construction by perhaps a year.
“The decision could be made in multiple steps,” said Suso. “The cost will rise as you wait, as you get into subsequent construction seasons. Every year you delay, you can assume costs go up five to ten percent per year.”
“The cost will rise as you wait, as you get into subsequent construction seasons. Every year you delay, you can assume costs go up five to ten percent per year.” – Town Manager Julian Suso
Asked whether the estimate, based on a concept, was accurate enough to bring to voters, Suso said, “I am very confident in these numbers. We have a firm that specializes in construction estimating that reviewed it at length with the finance committee…We were very cautious and careful with this. The finance committee was heavily involved.”
Asked to compare this project to the Falmouth High School renovation project, completed three years late in 2010 at a cost overrun of $19 million, Suso said, “That was a renovation project. Every renovation project has surprises.”
“I feel kind of a betrayal by our public officials,” said Matthew Cronin, who is opposed to the town building a new Senior Center next to the Gus Canty Center. “After ten years… they are picking a site that was already rejected,” he said.
Cronin, 75, said he has “never stepped foot in the senior center.” His concern, he he said, “is people voting in the blind for the amount of $9.5 million on something that we don’t have a plan for that seems to be siting the senior center in the wrong location.”
“Don’t put your money on something that is the second best location,” he said. He suggested the town should “get back to the drawing board. Reconsolidate your thoughts.”
And Margo Finnell, a town meeting member, said “I believe the board of selectmen and the school committee are trying to force the seniors to accept what they are offering now, which is Gus Canty.”
Finnell said, “The administration of the town, the board of selectmen, should get into the process of making a comprehensive plan on the needs of the town.” The idea, she suggested, would be to look at future needs that can be forseen and at land and come up with a plan that takes it all into consideration.
“You won’t be able to enlarge the Gus Canty Center if you want,” said Finnell. “There is a problem if you want to enlarge the police station. You won’t be able to enlarge the police station. You have a lot of constraints on that site.”
And Murphy cited the traffic on Main Street “with just the Gus Canty Center there. Going there in the summer is even worse with Commodores game.”
She added that seniors want a one story building, not the two-story one planned for the Gus Canty site. “I fear it will be very unsafe,” said Murphy. “I fear people will be falling down the steps because they can’t wait for the elevator.”
And Murphy said that there has been a lack of information about the process. “I had no idea until the beginning of this year that all of this transpired in October 2016.”
And Finnell said, “There is a lot of information that doesn’t really get to the public. Who knew of that feasibility study?”
Asked about this, Vieira told Cape Cod Wave, “All of our public forums were well publicized. All of our reports are online. There was extensive coverage in the (Falmouth) Enterprise of all of our public forums and all of our studies. We made reports at eight consecutive town meetings. I think you get the picture. It’s really ludicrous to say that this process wasn’t in the public eye.”
And Suso disputed the notion that a two-story senior center is not good for seniors. In other communities, he said, “It’s reasonably common to have two-story senior centers. It’s much more compact. It’s easier to traverse. You don’t have long distance hallways like you do in an elementary school.”
And, said Suso, the plan for the new building is to have one elevator centrally located in the 17,000-square foot building, which includes 2,000 square feet for storage.
There are other moving parts to this story as well, such as a proposed pickleball court that was determined unnecessary and too expensive, and the new connection to the Gus Canty Community Center that would be built if this measure passes on May 16.
The two-story Gus Canty Center, which has an elevator, already hosts several Council on Aging classes. It also has a gymnasium, where pickleball is one of many things played by townspeople of all ages.
Another advantage of siting the senior center next to the Gus Canty Center, said Suso, was the ability of the two facilities to share some expenses, especially some staff.
As for concerns about expansion, Suso said, “There is no proposal to expand the police station. Frankly, that’s an excellent building. There are some opportunities for internal reworking.” And, he said, “Any public building could always expand if you drive the time curve out far enough.”
And Suso said that traffic at the Gus Canty site will not be an issue most of the year. “At certain times of the year, one can point to a lot of locations and say that’s not a good one for traffic. There is about a 75-day period in the summer when traffic is very difficult,” he said.
“Remember what time the Commodores play, generally in the evening,” said Suso. “Early mornings and afternoons tend to be busy times for senior centers.”
Plus, Suso said, in the plans adjustments have been made to accommodate traffic challenges, including a new entryway from Main Street, as well as improving the rear exit onto Dillingham Avenue.
Murphy contended the vote to put the Senior Center at the Gus Canty Center will mean the high school football field at the site will be moved to the high school.
“This is a two for one deal on the ballot,” she said. “They will get their long awaited artificial turf field, which failed as a $3 million ballot override two years ago. The cost of having the new turf field rolled into the senior center is unfair,” she said.
But Suso said, “The football field is not really related. One of the elements that was fundamental to the proposal we took to town meeting in April was that it does not require the football field to be relocated.”
Murphy said the senior center should be built at the high school and the decision to move it from the second lacrosse field was because of “an emotional attachment. It’s all about emotions with the high school students and their parents. It’s not on common sense.”
“Emotion took over. The board of selectmen responded emotionally.” – Margo Finnell resident.
Finnell agreed. “Emotion took over. The board of selectmen responded emotionally.”
And Cronin said, “If it’s not a collusion, it’s some sort of an unholy alliance between the selectmen and the school committee.”
But Brown said of the selectmen’s decision to change to the Gus Canty site, “We reacted to the negative feedback by agreeing to choose a new site. Their contention is that we should have stuck to our guns and said too bad about you school kids? They think we caved to political pressure? We actually agreed that the people had some valid points about the field.”
Brown added, “We didn’t say we like high school kids better. We didn’t say, kick the old people to the curb.”
“We didn’t say we like high school kids better. We didn’t say, kick the old people to the curb.” – Selectman Doug Brown
Finally, Murphy said a big reason she is working to defeat the proposal for the Gus Canty site and get it back to the high school site is the opportunity for an “intergenerational exchange.”
But Suso said that, “It came to the attention of several of us that part of the support for the high school location involved a misconception about the high school campus that the high school campus would be open to senior visits. But the reality is the high school is a closed campus. You can’t just walk on and use the library, sit in on a class.”
Suso said, “In some of the meetings I attended, some people said a major attractiveness of the high school site to them was that it would allow them to interact with their children and grandchildren in classes, and use the athletic fields.” But that would actually not be allowed, he reiterated.
On the other hand, he said, a number of senior activities now occur at the Gus Canty Center, where there are intergenerational opportunities. “It’s not a school setting, it’s a town setting,” said Suso.
The current senior center, said Murphy, who goes there for services, “is very institutional looking. It’s very cramped and dismal looking inside. It’s too small from what I see for what they offer in the way of services.”
Vieira said, “The building, when you go inside, it’s basically one big room with two smaller rooms attached to it. Essentially, you can only do one thing at a time in that building.
And Cronin said, “Every town should have something of this nature so seniors don’t get lost in the shuffle. The worst possible thing is loneliness. If you have somewhere to go, that’s great.”
Brown said, “The building is so overcrowded. It’s so unfair, it goes on year after year.”
Cronin said, “If this is done and done well, it will be a legacy for the people coming forward, for the people in their 40s and 50s that will be seniors.
Finally, Murphy is opposed to the Gus Canty site because, “We want something better.”
But Brown said, “In my thinking, voting no is a huge step backward.”
Polls are open 7 AM to 8 PM on May 16.
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