Could the Long Center provide, finally, a home for a center for Clearwater's senior citizens? The answer may depend on whether the city is successful at snaring a state grant to pay for renovations to the building on N Belcher Road.
Tonight, Clearwater City Council members are expected to ratify a grant request written by the city staff that seeks $727,500 in state tobacco settlement money to create a multipurpose senior center called the Aging Well Center inside the Long Center.
The city would have to provide a 25 percent match, or $242,500, but has a source for the cash: a capital improvement fund dedicated for use at the Long Center.
Senior citizens in Clearwater have lobbied for a place to call their own since a privately operated senior center on Court Street closed several years ago. Mayor Frank Hibbard made a new senior center a part of his platform when running for office, but there was either insufficient support among other elected officials or insufficient funding. With tax revenues dropping and the city cutting programs and staff, the senior center idea seemed increasingly unrealistic.
However, the city's assumption of responsibility for the Long Center from a private foundation in 2003, combined with the state's appropriation of $10-million in tobacco settlement money to fund grants for senior center capital costs, created an unexpected opportunity.
Under a preliminary plan, the city would renovate, equip and furnish 8,500 square feet inside the Long Center — an area that now consists of the first-floor cafeteria, kitchen and two classrooms. Those areas would be dedicated to programming for residents age 55 and older. The city's Office on Aging is talking with local organizations and businesses that could provide the programming.
The space was formerly dedicated to use by the Upper Pinellas Association for Retarded Citizens, but that organization is interested in reducing its footprint in the Long Center.
The Long Center is already heavily utilized by senior citizens because it has a therapy pool and a fitness center. The city's 8,500 square feet would provide a place where seniors could socialize separately from other users of the Long Center, and also where programs especially useful to seniors could be offered. The city envisions health and wellness classes perhaps offered by local hospitals, programs such as self-defense for seniors, and computer classes in a dedicated computer center.
Parks and Recreation Director Kevin Dunbar believes the senior center will require 1.5 full-time equivalent staff members and will cost about $102,000 a year to operate. That is no small sum in the current cost-cutting environment, so the city is talking with a private nonprofit group, Senior Citizens Services Inc., about funding an endowment that would provide the annual operating dollars for the Aging Well Center. Senior Citizens Services Inc. operated the former center on Court Street, which was torn down and is now being replaced by a hotel.
Whether seniors will support the city's idea remains to be seen. Some have criticized the city for not constructing a standalone senior center like Dunedin's Dr. William Hale Center.
The Long Center plan seems like a good compromise, saving the city the millions of dollars that would be required to build a standalone center, but still providing dedicated programming in a recreational facility that has the valuable amenities of an indoor swimming pool and a fitness center.
Clearwater has a larger percentage of residents over age 65 (21.5 percent) than any other city in the United States. It only seems fair to provide them with a place equipped to meet their special physical, recreational and educational needs.