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Clearwater's Senior Citizen Services changes its mission to charity

CLEARWATER — After cutting back on its programming for the elderly and selling the 200-unit apartment tower it operated for decades, Senior Citizen Services might appear to be downsizing.

But the 58-year-old organization could now be pivoted to have a bigger impact on the community than ever before.

The $8 million sale of Prospect Towers on Chestnut Street in September to real estate investor Ben Mallah effectively turned Senior Citizens Services from a service organization into a charitable foundation. Without a property to manage or activities to run, the nonprofit will now be dedicated solely to issuing grants to local agencies that provide care or services to the elderly, said Senior Citizens Services President Bill Sturtevant.

With about $9 million now in its coffers, thanks mostly to the Prospect Towers sale, Sturtevant said its reach could be immense.

"We think the future is incredible," he said. "These times are so exciting because we believe this will go on for a long, long, long time."

Disbursing the money will work like this: The foundation has formed a grant funding committee within its board of directors that will review applications, and they expect to open the first round this month.

The foundation will select recipients and award funding quarterly, with each round focused on a different service area. The first grant will be aimed at health services and education, with future grants geared toward nutrition, transportation, utilities and pet assistance, dancing, senior field trips, housing assistance, relocation help with deposits and other services.

The foundation will give priority to agencies in Pinellas County but will also consider broader Tampa Bay.

Sturtevant said there is not a specific quota for how many agencies will be granted money each year, but to abide by tax laws, the foundation must award at least $450,000 in total this year, or 5 percent of its assets.

Senior Citizens Services operated for years in various locations downtown offering computer classes, independent living counseling, card games and other support to the elderly. In 2004 the group moved from its 16,000-square-foot location on Court Street, where it operated for decades, to an office about one-fifth the size on Rogers Street.

In 2014 the organization closed its Rogers Street office and ran some services out of two suites in Prospect Towers, a low-income housing community built in 1972.

But the sale of the apartments in September ended the in-house services.

Sturtevant said the board of directors decided to sell Prospect Towers because costs for much-needed structural repairs to the roof and windows were beyond their means.

Mallah, whose company buys distressed properties and flips them, said he bought the apartments as an investment and has since renovated some units and begun repairs.

He reduced the minimum age for residents from 62 to 55 and raised rents by about $100, but said the goal is to make the apartments a better place to live.

About 30 Section 8 tenants remain and some qualify for a sliding rent scale based on income.

"We're going to freshen up the whole place, all the common areas are going to be redone and redecorated, and we're trying to bring it up to a little more cheerful place," Mallah said.

Bob Wittenburg, who served as executive director from 2002 to 2015, said he would have preferred the Towers to have been sold to a nonprofit that would continue the charitable mission. He also fears lowering the age limit could have a negative impact on quality of life for the older residents.

Still, he expects much good to come from the revenue from the sale and the foundation's new mission.

"The money is going to be given away, so it's a natural evolution," he said.

Contact Tracey McManus at tmcmanus@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.

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