CLEARWATER — The five friends gathered around the wooden table for their biweekly game of pinochle at the Senior Center of Clearwater. But before they could shuffle the first deck of cards, they received sad news from Robert Wittenberg, the executive director of Senior Citizens Services Inc.
"I wanted to let you know, in September, the center will close,'' said Wittenberg, 69. "But we are not abandoning you. We will do everything in our power to relocate you wherever you'd like to go because we value your participation.''
The friends were silent for a moment, gathering their thoughts.
"Well, they do have card games where I live, at Top of the World,'' said Viola Browning, 68. "But I've made a lot of friends here.''
The others nodded.
Citing a shift in the community's needs and a belief that its money could be better spent, the board of directors of Senior Citizens Services Inc., a foundation that survives in large part on donations, will close its Senior Center at 1204 Rogers St. on Sept. 15. The foundation will then move its administrative office, including its referral service, to Prospect Towers, its affordable senior housing community at 801 Chestnut St., where it will turn its primary focus to supporting the residents there.
The foundation is financially sound, but over the years the number of visitors to the center has continued to decrease, Wittenberg said.
"It costs $200,000 a year to operate in this building, so the board determined it was time to change directions,'' he said. "Really, the reason for the closing is almost exclusively due to the diminishing level of senior participation from the community in our programs.
"Times have changed. There's the Aging Well Center for Clearwater, the Hale Center for Dunedin and Largo's very active community center. We are no longer the only place for seniors to go.''
For many years, the private Senior Center was part of a large Senior Citizens Services campus at 940 Court St., which also included a consignment store and a tour department that generated about $500,000 each year.
"In our heyday, we had 5,000 seniors travelling with us, so it was a good revenue source, but when 9/11 happened, the travelling (slowed), and we decided to close the department,'' Wittenberg said.
Soon after, the board of directors decided to downsize, moving to the current location.
Along with its games and social activities, the center is known in the community as a clearinghouse, a place to get information on issues such as housing, transportation and consumer problems, and computer skills. People can even borrow medical equipment.
And for groups such as the pinochle players, it has been a favorite place to socialize. Mary Heckenbach, 92, shook her head when she heard the news. "Some of us have played cards together since 2001,'' she said. "I don't know what I'll do. Sit home and cry, I guess.''
Janet Hannah, the leasing consultant at Prospect Towers, is looking forward to the foundation's arrival.
"I'm sorry that the neighborhood is losing the center, but it will be good to have them at Prospect Towers,'' Hannah said. "For example, I understand they're bringing computers, and I know our residents will use them.''
When Clearwater City Manager Bill Horne was told that the foundation will move into Prospect Towers, he applauded the decision. "Prospect Towers is a community of seniors of which many are not very mobile or have limited mobility,'' he said. "It's a significant community that will participate and take advantage of activities offered.''
And the city invites those who feel a void after the closing to participate in some of its senior programs nearby, said Kerry Marsalek, manager of the city's Office on Aging. Along with the Aging Well Center, the city holds programs at the North Greenwood and Clearwater Main libraries, the North Greenwood Recreation and Aquatic Center and the Ross Norton Center.
"But I also want to acknowledge the impact the Senior Center has had in the city. It is remarkable,'' she said. "We appreciate all the work the senior citizens center has done over the years.''
Contact Piper Castillo at [email protected] Follow @Florida_PBJC.