More seniors, more space urges COA

  • The Bangs Community Center has housed the senior center for 40 years. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Thursday, December 28, 2017

AMHERST — As the Amherst Senior Center marks 40 years in the Bangs Community Center in 2018, the Council on Aging is renewing a push to construct a building with more space to enhance programs for the nearly 5,000 senior citizens who live in town.

With budget season beginning early in the new year, a long-range planning subcommittee for the Council on Aging sent a letter to town officials requesting that a new building be placed on the 10-year capital project list by the Joint Capital Planning Committee, while the subcommittee begins circulating a petition and planning for a presentation to annual Town Meeting.

Council member Jack Wollensak said that since 2010, seniors have been exploring how to move forward with a project to build a new senior center, but have made little progress.

“It’s been a struggle,” Wollensack said. “The reason is the town doesn’t have a lot of money to spend on a project like we’re proposing.”

He understands that four other projects — a new elementary school, an expanded and renovated Jones Library, a new Department of Public Works headquarters and a South Amherst fire station — are considered vital.

Still, the Council on Aging thinks it’s a good time to build a senior center, as well. Wollensak points to Hadley, which will break ground on its new senior center in 2018; Greenfield, where a new center opens in February; and Chicopee, which built a new center three years ago.

“Towns all around us are building new centers with special features that accommodate senior needs,” Wollensak said.

The letter asks for $50,000 to begin a feasibility study and for the town to acquire two acres on which a 20,000- to 25,000-square-foot building can be built, with 129 free parking spaces.

“Members of the Amherst Council on Aging and the Senior Center have grave concerns about the woeful inadequacy of the Amherst Senior Center. It does not fully serve the needs of the seniors in our community due to serious limitations in the Bangs facility,” the letter reads.

The petition restates what the letter asks for. “We request that the town provide for a feasibility study of about $50,000 to determine the best way to expand and improve space in the Bangs Community Center in the short term. In the long term, we request that the construction of a new senior center be placed on the town’s capital project list.”

The senior center currently has 7,399 square feet in which to operate. The space includes the cafeteria, where a meal delivered by Highland Valley Elder Services is served each day, and rooms that are shared with municipal boards and the programs of Leisure Services and Supplemental Education. Other space in the building is rented to the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Hampshire County, Center for New Americans and the John P. Musante Health Center.

Only the main office, the lounge and the computer room are for exclusive use of the senior center, meaning there are limits on where exercise programs and adult day care can take place, and no room for a gift shop or medical center.

Parking in the center of Amherst is also a challenge. The Boltwood parking garage often has limited parking available.

“In the short term, our hope is to find adequate useful space in the building. Longer term we’d like to build a standalone senor center with room for various needs seniors have,” Wollensak said.

Senior Center Director Nancy Pagano said Amherst is growing and remains a popular place for elders because of the cultural opportunities and the quality of life.

“It’s definitely time for us to get on the Joint Capital Planning radar,” Pagano said.

The census shows there are currently 4,912 residents age 60 and older. That figure is predicted to rise to 5,345 residents in 2020.

“There are a lot of things we want to do for our people but don’t have the space,” Pagano said.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman said he has responded to the letter by letting the Council on Aging know that Claire McGinnis, the town’s co-finance director, will make sure the requests for a feasibility study and a new senior center are captured on Amherst’s 10-year capital plan.

But Bockelman said the four other capital projects have long been identified as the priority for the town.

“Until the Select Board changes the priority, this will be on the list as something we need to do,” Bockelman said.

Bockelman added that he appreciates that the Council on Aging continues to raise awareness of the needs of senior citizens.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.