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City Council briefed on Senior Center capital request for new facility

The leadership team of the Senior Center appeared before the Charlottesville City Council this week to argue the benefits of public investment in the organization’s proposed new facility.

“The Center at Belvedere will triple our capacity to meet the needs of an aging population,” said Peter Thompson, executive director of the Senior Center.

For the first time in the organization’s 56-year history, Senior Center officials are asking both the city and Albemarle County to help pay for the cost of the new facility, which has a cost estimate of $23 million.

“This is such a big important change for us that a lot of our large philanthropic donors encouraged us to seek some public money to offset this ambitious project,” said Hi Ewald, president of the Senior Center’s board of directors.

The group is formally asking the city and county to each contribute $2 million to the new center in next year’s capital improvement program budgets.

They also asked for the chance to publicly explain the request, having had the same opportunity to do so before the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors in March.

“In a time of great needs and wants in our community, both the city and county need to look more at public-private partnerships,” Thompson said. “What we’re looking at is that the Senior Center will raise 80 percent through private philanthropy and are only looking for 10 percent from the city and 10 percent from the county.”

One of four households in the Thomas Jefferson Planning District has at least one member over the age of 65. Thompson said the Senior Center helps connect people going through transitional times as careers wind down and loved ones are lost.

“Social isolation kills,” Thompson said. “It’s not just being sad and doesn’t just lead to depression. It is increasingly tied to hypertension, higher rates of cancer and heart disease and early morbidity.”

Thompson said people who are connected to the community through the center are less likely to need social services and more health care.

Others were also on hand to promote the center’s role in the community.

Amy Berry is the program manager for community engagement with the Region Ten Community Services Board and works at the Meadowcreek Adult Day Services Center.

“At our center, we support just over 60 individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” Berry said. “We have been really fortunate the past couple of months partnering with [the Senior Center] to get our individuals into community-based programming at the center.”

Berry said the Senior Center has allowed them to expand their programming by offering scholarships.

“They have helped us get connected to activities at the Paramount [Theater] because they have a partnership with them,” Berry said. “That’s something that, without that relationship and the scholarship program, we would not have been able to do.”

Councilor Kristin Szakos said she strongly supports the request.

“The Senior Center is largely non-public funded, and it really does contribute a great deal to our local economy and our local quality of life,” Szakos said.

Others were more skeptical.

Councilor Bob Fenwick said he was supportive of the Senior Center’s mission, but his concern was about funding a project in the county.

“This is city money that you are asking for,” Fenwick said. “I would have a difficult time supporting this [request].”

City Councilor Kathy Galvin wanted to know how many city residents currently use the current facility as compared to county residents. Thompson said about 31 percent of its members are city residents, 68 percent are from Albemarle and the rest come from outlying counties.

Galvin said she was skeptical that the new site in Belvedere is a walkable location.

“The 300 parking spaces surrounding your building at this point in time do not seem to suggest that this is a walkable community,” Galvin said. “This is still for people that are going to be driving from all over.”

Thompson said the parking is a reflection of the reality that most people currently drive. However, he added that the center is located two miles north of downtown and will be on Charlottesville Area Transit Route 11.

“One of the things we really look forward to is working with the city, as well as partners such as [the Jefferson Area Board for Aging], JAUNT and the [Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission] to look at transportation,” Thompson said. “It’s one of the biggest fundamental problems our community has for its underserved folks.”

Galvin said she has to review the request as part of the larger capital improvement program next year.

“I certainly can’t without knowing the bigger picture on our end make a firm commitment,” Galvin said.

Mayor Mike Signer said he would also have to look at the other projects.

“We have a very long list of unfunded capital requests,” Signer said.

Thompson said he was not looking for a vote at the meeting.

“We fully understand it is very early in the budget process,” Thompson said. “We are in the capital improvement program process with all the other departments and city needs. We understand that we are going to be compared to them.”