Friday, March 24, 2006

Senior Center Plans To Be Revealed

Seniors rang out the old year with politicians’ promises of a new center ringing in their heads.

But the New Year brought a different message. There will be a new senior center, but maybe not at the East Front Street site where former Mayor Albert T. McWilliams held a groundbreaking last May. McWilliams lost out to Sharon Robinson-Briggs, who became mayor Jan. 1, and her mentor, Assemblyman Jerry Green, has hinted at other possible sites for the promised center.

On Monday, Senior Center President Charles Nelson told Robinson-Briggs and the City Council that he came back from a vacation to find his members very upset.

The “future site” sign erected on the city-owned East Front Street property was gone. Nelson reminded the council that the governing body had committed $4.3 million in funding “for that particular site.”

Council President Ray Blanco joked, “They’re just cleaning it. They took it down to put my name on it.“

But for seniors, the possibility of the new center being shifted to some other site is no laughing matter. Since the city’s 10-year lease ran out in 1999 on the rented quarters at 305 East Front Street, seniors have adamantly rejected alternate sites, such as the city-owned public space under the Tepper’s building on Front Street or the Plainfield Armory on East Seventh Street, which the state is offering for other uses.

Nelson said City Administrator Carlton McGee told him Monday that the seniors will be very happy with the new administration’s decision on the center.

At a meeting today (Friday, March 24, 2006) the senior center’s building committee is supposed to receive definitive information on the new administration’s plan. The meeting is closed to the public, but Nelson said the results will be made public at a senior meeting on Wednesday (March 29, 2006).

The new administration has promised explanations at previous junctures. Robinson-Briggs met with seniors on March 7, but had no news. Her administration was supposed to have a plan in place by March 10.

The center has been located at 305 East Front Street since 1989, when the city signed the 10-year lease. After it ran out, the city has had various short-term lease arrangements. The current annual rent is close to $100,000. Earlier plans for a new center had a price tag of $1.2 million, but more recently the cost has been set at $4.3 million and the city last year committed to that amount.

However, the new administration has questioned both the cost and the location. In addition, McGee has maintained there are no specific plans on file for a new center.

Former basketball star Jayson Williams had proposed a senior center combined with an arts complex, but dropped out of the project. Officials have also proposed a center combined with a retail strip to bring in tax revenues. Both proposals were to be located at the East Front Street site about a block north of the current center, on land cleared at city expense. Green has denied persistent rumors that the potentially valuable downtown location is now being eyed as the site for a new Commerce Bank.

Meanwhile, Nelson attends City Council meetings and reminds officials of their past promises. What will happen today remains to be seen, he said.

“We gotta wait and see,” he said. “They’re telling me it’s gonna be good.”

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: senior center