Guest columnist Meg Gage: Best use for the remaining elementary school in Amherst

  • Wildwood School in Amherst. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Thursday, April 28, 2022

Three cheers for the Friends of the Amherst Senior Center (FASC) for drawing attention to Amherst’s embarrassingly inadequate senior center facilities.

When I was on the most recent Charter Commission we did outreach to get input from different constituencies and I was responsible for organizing input from the Senior Center and from seniors. Forty-five people attended a public forum focusing on senior issues, and we got an earful — less about town government than about the inadequate Senior Center, housed in the Bangs Center.

The Senior Center shares space in Bangs with multiple other programs and agencies. The small kitchen is inadequate for preparing community meals or snacks. There is often competition for use of meeting rooms with the various other town agencies and services. The John P. Musante Health Center uses much of the basement level. In addition, the Pole Room is now the home of the wonderful Civil War tablets and the Large Activity Room is used for congregate meals and as set-up for food-to-go.

Northampton, Hadley, Holyoke and Greenfield have recently completed construction of new Senior Center buildings. Using numbers provided by the FASC, Northampton has 3.62 square feet per senior of designated senior center space, while Amherst has only 1.8 square feet per senior, the majority of which is shared space with other town programs and therefore not consistently available.

And now the plan is for the new Community Responders for Equity, Safety and Services (CRESS) program to be housed at Bangs, bringing nine or 10 additional staff into the building. I applaud the creation of the new CRESS program and hope the town will do everything necessary for the program to be successful. But it is a shame that the Senior Center space will be further compromised.

The Friends of the Amherst Senior Center call for a new, 20,000-25,000-square-foot building with 129 free parking spaces. Sadly, because of the four other priority capital projects ahead in the queue, it is unimaginable that the town could take on a fifth capital project anytime soon.

But let’s be creative and think outside the box and into the future. When the Elementary School Building Committee selects a site for the new elementary school, at Wildwood or Fort River, there will be an empty school building. Let’s think creatively about how that empty town building could be renovated and upgraded to house a new senior center worthy of Amherst and the 5,239 seniors who live in town. I suggest the school building could be renovated to also house an Early Childhood Center. Abundant research concludes that seniors and preschoolers have many complementary interests, potential relationships and collaborative programming.

I also suggest housing the new BIPOC-led Youth Center in the renovated school, creating additional opportunities for cross-generational programs and relationships.

There are pros and cons of each of the two elementary school sites as the location of a future Senior Center. Fort River, on Northeast Street, is closer to population centers and has better public transportation. Wildwood, on Strong Street, has no public bus service but bus lines can be changed. Wildwood is closer to the middle school and high school, which would facilitate young people getting to the youth center. Wildwood is closer to town. Both sites have adequate outdoor space for an early childhood playground.

Needless to say, the decision about which school will be the site of the new elementary school is a decision the Building Committee will make (soon!) based on what’s best for school children. But it’s not too early to get creative about how we might use the site they do not select to help meet the needs of our seniors, preschoolers and our BIPOC teens.

I strongly advocate for making a plan for this development right now, rather than waiting until the four capital projects are completed. Amherst seniors have been left behind! We urgently need to start planning now for how we can bring our senior services up to par, and perhaps at the same time launch a early childhood program and BIPOC teen center.

We can do this!

Meg Gage lives in Amherst.