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Seniors to lose social center, crafts shop

(ran Seminole edition)

A 45-year-old nonprofit for seniors is shuttering its three buildings, saying it can no longer afford to operate.

Senior Citizens Services announced Wednesday that it intends to sell its arts and crafts shop, social center and administration office to Pinellas County.

"We have been operating in a deficit for many months," said Dr. William Hale, president of the organization. "We just didn't see any recovery from the downturn we were experiencing."

The county has not made a decision to purchase the 2-acre site on Court Street, but office space is a need, Assistant County Administrator Gay Lancaster said.

She said the county wants to expand its health department and build a clinic for indigent patients. The property could be a good location for those facilities.

"We don't know if it would be financially feasible," Lancaster said. "We know that we would need money from the state for the health department. We're not anywhere near taking this to the Board of County Commissioners."

Senior Citizens Services is closing the three buildings on Sept. 30. The property is assessed for tax purposes at $1.2-million.

The nonprofit is hoping to continue operating through other senior organizations, such as Neighborly Care Network, a separate agency.

"We are determined not to go out of existence," said Bob Wittenberg, executive director of the organization. "We have the resources to do it if we stop the bleeding now."

In its 2002 tax return, the organization listed revenue at $587,834 and expenses at $658,401, with assets of $3,264,281. Agency officials declined to discuss finances yesterday.

Senior Citizens Services provides an array of activities for people 55 and over, including card games, sewing classes, dances, an investment club and tours. The agency has more than 2,600 members.

About 125 people volunteer in the crafts and gift shop, which celebrates its 40th anniversary next month.

"It makes me very sad," said Dorothy Franc, 84, a volunteer since 1984. "We've had so many nice people and such wonderful merchandise to sell."

The shop, which sells everything from wooden crafts to crocheted pot holders, used to be extremely popular, said Kathleen Anthony, assistant manager. She remembers the long lines at the cash register during Christmas.

But a few years ago, the shop stopped making money.

Construction on Myrtle Avenue and the new Memorial Causeway Bridge have made things worse, she said.

On Thursday, the store sold about $125 in merchandise. That number should have been around $500, Anthony said.

"We hardly get any traffic through here," Anthony said. "We're set back. People don't know that we are here."

Wittenberg said there may be a promotional sale before the 30th.

In the meantime, he asked craftsmakers to wait before removing their items. The shop is not accepting any new crafts.

One customer, Linda Boeing of New Port Richey, said she would be back to purchase a wooden doll house.

"I would sure like to see it stay open," she said. "This is the only way some of these people make extra money."

Wittenberg did not rule out reopening the craft shop in a smaller location.

He said seniors would get a refund on any trips that are canceled. Some may even get back their $10 annual dues.

"We need to see if we can relocate some of these activities to other facilities," he said. "All we're trying to do is serve seniors."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.