CLEARWATER — More than one in five people in this city are older than 65. In fact, Clearwater has more senior citizens per capita than any other American city with 100,000 or more residents.
Yet it doesn't have a senior center. In contrast, Dunedin has one and Largo plans to break ground on one next summer. Clearwater's seniors have long lobbied for a place to call their own.
Finally, it's about to happen. The city announced Thursday that it has snared a $727,500 state grant to create a multipurpose senior center inside its Long Center recreation complex on N Belcher Road.
"You hear a lot on the national level about the 'age wave' that's coming as the baby boomers retire. But Clearwater's age wave is here today," said Kerry Marsalek, manager of the city's Office on Aging. "The city sees this center as a way of serving a huge proportion of our residents."
Beginning next summer, the city will renovate and equip 8,500 square feet inside the Long Center, an area that now consists of a first-floor cafeteria, kitchen and two classrooms.
That area, to be called the Aging Well Center, will have its own entrance and will host various programs for residents 55 and older — health and wellness, education, recreation and socialization.
Clearwater retirees have been calling for this ever since a privately operated senior center on Court Street closed in 2004.
Mayor Frank Hibbard proposed a new senior center upon taking office in 2005. Officials had envisioned opening a center in a new freestanding building, possibly near the lawn bowls and shuffleboard complex off N Fort Harrison Avenue.
But with tax revenues dropping and the city cutting back on programs, that goal seemed increasingly unrealistic.
"The need is fairly obvious. The question is how to pay for it and where to locate it," Hibbard said. "With the Long Center's geographic location, it makes all the sense in the world."
The $727,500 grant comes from Florida's tobacco settlement money. The state appropriated $10-million of that money to fund grants for senior centers. The city must chip in a 25 percent match, or $242,500, which is coming from a capital improvement fund dedicated for use at the Long Center.
Clearwater, known for its extensive recreation programs, already offers a number of activities for seniors. But they're spread out around the city.
One attraction of the Long Center: It's already heavily used by seniors because it has a therapy pool as well as therapeutic equipment in its fitness center, said city parks and recreation director Kevin Dunbar.
The space where the Aging Well Center will go was formerly used by the Upper Pinellas Association for Retarded Citizens, but UPARC now needs less room in the Long Center.
The renovations are expected to begin in July and could be finished by early 2010. The city will be talking with local organizations and businesses that could offer programs useful to seniors.
At the new center, the city envisions health and wellness classes perhaps offered by local hospitals, as well as self-defense and computer classes. Marsalek of the Office on Aging foresees a "one-stop shopping" location that offers access to legal, financial and employment guidance.
Not to mention the recreation and socialization opportunities, she said. "Staying connected to your community — that's one key point in growing older."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4160.