CLEARWATER — Donning hard hats, city officials toured a construction zone Wednesday. Air-conditioning ducts hung over their heads as they walked on bare concrete floors.
They got a first look at the new senior center being built inside the city's Long Center recreation complex on N Belcher Road.
Called the Aging Well Center, it's scheduled to open in early June. A $727,500 state grant is paying for most of the work.
The multipurpose center will host programs for residents 55 and older — health and wellness, education, recreation and socialization. And of course, it will offer the services most commonly requested by Clearwater's seniors — dance programs and computer classes.
"It will continue to evolve," Kerry Marsalek, manager of the city's Office on Aging, said. "Seniors want to be connected to the community."
Mayor Frank Hibbard proposed a new senior center upon taking office in 2005. He sees it as an obvious need.
More than one in five people in Clearwater is 65 or older. In fact, Clearwater has more senior citizens per capita than any other American city with a population of 100,000 or more. Yet it hasn't had a senior center since a privately operated one on Court Street closed in 2004.
"We hear over and over that a lot of seniors want a place that's theirs," Hibbard said Wednesday. The Long Center made sense, he said, because seniors already use the therapy pool and equipment in its fitness center.
And then there's its location: "It's almost the geographic center of Clearwater," the mayor said. Also, it's on a major traffic artery and it's near the Pinellas Trail.
Construction crews are renovating 8,500 square feet inside the Long Center. The space was formerly used by the Upper Pinellas Association for Retarded Citizens, but UPARC no longer needs as much room.
The city is making the Long Center's fitness center 30 percent bigger and is adding six new treadmills.
It's also redesigning the parking lot on the south side of the building, carving 47 parking spaces for the Aging Well Center out of what was formerly UPARC staff parking.
No parking is being added. A lack of parking is sometimes a problem at the Long Center, but Marsalek said the city is looking at that issue.
The $727,500 state grant that's paying for it comes from Florida's tobacco settlement money. The state appropriated $10 million of that money to fund grants for senior centers. The city had to chip in a 25 percent match, or $242,500, which came from a capital improvement fund dedicated for use at the Long Center.
Clearwater is talking to organizations and businesses that could offer programs useful to seniors, such as legal, financial and employment guidance.
Organizations such as Ruth Eckerd Hall, the Dunedin Fine Art Center and St. Petersburg College may collaborate with the city to offer arts classes and ways for seniors to express themselves creatively, said Elizabeth Minor, a cultural affairs specialist with the city.
"It adds to longevity," Minor said. "As we age, we can improve our physicality and our mental capacity … if we are creatively engaged."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4160.