Seniors Look for Answers Before Construction of New Center

The Vernonia Senior Center Board of Directors is getting ready to take the first steps towards construction of their new joint facility with the Vernonia Cares Food Bank.  Yet there are several questions that need to be answered before they move forward.  

The issues the Seniors must sort through over the next several months include securing all needed funding for construction, planning which existing and new programs will be included at the new facility; the size and design of the new facility; an interim plan to provide services between demolition of their old building and completion of construction of the new facility; and how to create an operations budget that allows the center to function and be financially successful.

The Vernonia Senior Center has historically provided congregate meals for their members during lunch time on weekdays. The Center also provides social activities for members as well as some health and social services.  A Thrift Store inside the facility takes donations and is a main source of funding for the operation of the center.  The hope among Senior Center members, the Board and other supporters is that a brand new facility will enliven the membership base and bring more activity and usage to the center.

On August 18, 2014 the Vernonia City Council held a hearing to determine whether to apply for a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) and to consider potential projects the City might apply for.  Several members of the community spoke in favor of the City making an application on behalf of the Vernonia Senior Center for construction of a new Senior Center facility.

CDBG funds were previously used to construct the Vernonia Community Learning Center and  can be used for public facility and housing improvements, including infrastructure projects.  CDBG funds are primarily designed to assist persons with low and moderate incomes.

The Vernonia Senior Center is required to move from their current location following the 2007 Flood and will receive a buyout from FEMA of approximately $150,000.  Demolition of the old building is expected to cost the Seniors roughly $50,000, leaving the Senior Board with just $100,000 toward the project budget. Demolition of the old building must be completed by March 31, 2015.  The maximum amount the City can apply for from CDBG is $2 million.

At the Senior Center Board meeting on August 8, 2014, the Board estimated the price for the new construction to be $2.1 million.  Simultaneously, the Seniors and Food Bank must raise funds to cover street and utility development that are off-site as a separate project.  The development team estimates that this project and some of the non-CDBG eligible costs will require $500,000 to $700,000 more in charitable support. The current plans for the new building include a full kitchen and dining/social area, multi-purpose space as well as space for the Vernonia Cares Food Bank.  Vernonia Cares Director Sandy Welch, who also serves on the Senior Center Board as Secretary, says Vernonia Cares has been setting aside funds on a monthly basis for several years and that her organization will contribute those funds to the new construction.

Jim Tierney of Community Action Team (CAT) is serving as the Senior Center/Food Bank Project Development Manager.  According to Tierney the earliest that construction on the new senior facility could begin would be May of 2015.  The Seniors are considering several options for ways to serve their community members in the interim, including using space in a local church facility to serve meals.  They are also considering options to house their Thrift Store, the main source of income for the organization.

If the Seniors accept CDBG funds they will be limited in who they can serve for the first five years once the building is operational. The CDBG funds come with age limit and income restrictions which would in turn require the Thrift Store to be housed off-site for the first five to six years.

Project Manager Tierney says the project team will work closely with the architect hired by the City during the CDBG project to make sure the current project size and scope are  warranted. “The final architecture work must be done using an architect hired by the City after the CDBG award.  At that time we will have the expert assistance needed to more carefully look at design efficiencies,”  says Tierney.  “Using the design process to look for potential savings is critical to success. It is a commitment we owe to our funders and a hedge against surprises during the public bidding process.”  Tierney went on to say that squeezing the project scope as much as possible also reduces fundraising demands as well as long term operating costs. Tierney said the project would be making applications to several philanthropic organizations in the near future to fill  gaps in the project budget.

At the August 8 Senior Center Board meeting, the Board held a lengthy discussion about their current financial situation.  According to financial records the Senior Center is losing money at a rate of over $1,000 per month.  While the Thrift Store has recently increased profits, it remains unable to offset the cost of operating the meals program and the rest of the Center.  Later at that same meeting the Board voted to cut meal service from five days to three days per week in order to reduce costs. Senior Center Budget Committee member Tobie Finzel says the Seniors are also actively researching other successful senior centers around the region and country looking for other operational models they might try to mirror.

Tierney says he believes the Senior Center Board can find solutions to their cash flow problem and develop a successful operational model.  “They know they have a problem and are serious about taking steps to address the issue,” said Tierney.  “Adjusting their business plan and practices is a job that only the Seniors can do because they are the ones that must carry it out.”