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One year later, community center drawing seniors, growing programming

January 4th, 2014 7:30 pm by Gary B. Gray

One year later, community center drawing seniors, growing programming

(Photos by Lee Talbert and Tony Duncan/Johnson City Press)

One year after the city opened Memorial Park Community Center, memberships are on the rise, new programs have sprung up and Parks and Recreation Department staff members are hustling to accommodate the varied needs and wants of both the young and old.

The 72,000-square-foot, multi-generational, recreational behemoth opened to the public in mid-December 2012, following an outcry from some who favored a stand-alone building for seniors. But the protest signs have long since been retired. The new Senior Services was incorporated into the $15 million project, and the kinks — for the most part — apparently have been worked out. 

One full year prior to the opening, Parks and Recreation Director Roger Blakeley developed a detailed program and presented it to the City Commission. He called the new center “cutting edge” and “state-of-the-art.” That plan gave seniors 27,000 square feet of space with which to work — more than double the old Seniors’ Center capacity of 12,000 square feet. 

Since the opening, more than 1,400 seniors have either joined the Seniors’ Center for the first time or returned after a period of inactivity longer than 12 months, and total Seniors’ Center membership currently sits at nearly 3,700 for those 50 years old and older.

“We took a real chance on how we were going to mix seniors with others,” Blakeley said. “But we went from protests to 72,000 square feet of use. And from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., it’s dominated by seniors. To make the commitment — for the City Commission to do this — it has been really good for the community.”

 First year finances

The new center came online at the mid-point of the normal fiscal year (June 30-July 1). 

But during a roughly one-year stretch from Dec. 1, 2012, through Dec. 16, 2013, Senior Services expenditures totaled nearly $593,000. Parks and Recreation’s cost, which includes all building maintenance, utilities and custodial services came to just more than $1.1 million, for a total of about $1.7 million. 

Meanwhile, revenues produced at the center for both Senior Services and Parks and Recreation came in at about $250,000. This does not include a grant in the amount of $60,583 and one appropriation from Washington County in the amount of $38,475 to help offset the Senior Services programming.

Within the city’s FY 2014 budget, Parks and Recreation estimated more than $1.2 million in costs for operation of the center and aquatics only. Revenue from property and local sales tax helps keep the center rolling, much like other city services, such as its police and fire departments. Grants, membership fees and fees from various events also are used to help pay for operations.

“Memorial Park Community Center is the same as other park and recreation facilities for public use — not a stand-alone facility,” Johnson City Budget Manager Lora Grogg said. “All departments accounted for within the general fund provide services to citizens and are not intended to be ‘profit centers’ for the city. Both Parks and Recreation and Senior Services are treated no differently than other general fund departments.”

The two highest revenue producers at the center were contracted services at more than $86,000. This includes outings, lunches, socials, dances/bands and arts and crafts, to name a few. The next highest was aquatics programs and classes, which brought in about $82,000.

Expenditures for administrative personnel led the way for both Parks and Recreation at nearly $622,000 and Senior Services at more than $216,000. This includes salaries, insurance, retirement, Social Security and so on. 

Seniors adjust to change

Undoubtedly, there was a lot of controversy over moving Senior Services into the new building. But a lot of water has gone under the bridge, and what former City Commissioner Marcy Walker told a group of seniors at a 2010 meeting remains noteworthy: “The bottom line is, we didn’t change anything. There was always going to be a part of this dedicated to seniors.”

At the time, City Manager Pete Peterson and other commissioners said the plan had always been to maintain the same staff currently serving seniors when the move was made to the new center. 

That’s exactly what happened. The only change in that plan is that there now are more staff tending to expanding senior programs.

“I’ve experienced many things with the seniors, and it’s very hard to change their minds,” said Amanda Hollifield, the center’s operations manager. “But I’ve actually had them come up to me and tell me how much they like it. The ones that are new are absolutely amazed by it. Sure, you can find a few that don’t like children being here, even though they’re supervised.

“A lot of kids here come from the Keystone community, and I think some of the seniors could help mentor them, We’re trying to find ways to bridge that gap. No matter how things were going to end up, there was going to be some controversy. But if you’re still feeling that, I just can’t understand why.” 

Jerry Paulsen, former Save Our Center chairman, said the group came together to fight for a separate facility. Paulsen was inside the center on the day the Press arrived to interview Hollifield and take some photos. He was meeting with a group called The Writers’ Circle.

“It’s a wonderful facility, but I don’t really come here to swim or do other things,” he said. “I guess it’s been kind of a wash for me. It’s just as friendly as the old center used to be.”

Gary Lyon, former Seniors’ Center Advisory Council president, complimented the center’s programming but also said he wished seniors had more of an opportunity to volunteer — just what Hollifield mentioned regarding mentors.

“It’s worked out well,” he said. “I go there. I play cards, and I’m in the hiking club — which has increased by 25 percent this year alone. It’s created a lot of changes, but it added a lot of opportunities that a lot of new people have picked up on. All in all, the new center has attracted a larger number of younger seniors — those in their late 50s and early 60s.”

Attendance, participation solid

The community center continues to offer its popular mainstays, including the popular aquatics programs, open gym, billiards, ballroom dancing, Silver Sneakers, yoga and aerobic classes, bridge, art classes and more.

“From 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. we could have up to 90 people come in the facility just to use the gym,” Hollifield said. “We really don’t track every person that comes through the door. For example, we have birthday parties, but we don’t do head counts, we use an average. Everyone else — those not coming for a group event — signs in on a software system and we track them there.

“What we’ve found so far is that other community centers are using trial and error to determine what’s best for the community. Bringing the separate division together — aquatics, Parks and Recreation services and senior services — presented something never done before. I loved the idea that you can come to one building and do pretty much anything you want.”

Hollifield said the center’s programming is in flux, and administrators and staff have had to grow and adjust to the popularity of certain programs. For example, yoga has been a big hit, meaning the activity had to be relocated to larger rooms.

“I’d much rather be facing those problems rather than having three people in a class,” she said. “Working people want 30-minute classes where you go hard and then go home. But overall, the principle behind our programming is the same as when we started: What does the community want?

“Sometimes it feels like it’s still the first month, because we have so many people calling and asking how to get here. Even after a year, we’re still educating and marketing. There are a lot of people out there that think this is just a senior center.”

Programs aplenty

A typical day at the center goes something like this: On Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 8 a.m.-2:30 p.m., seniors dominate the building, using all 72,000 feet, which includes ping-pong, pickle ball, billiards, bridge and card games, fitness, aquatics, arts and crafts, computers and socializing around the fire. 

From 3:30-9 p.m. the center is dominated by youth and adult recreation, including basketball, fitness, game room, aquatics, tot-watch, parties, after school programming and home schooling.

Aquatics has conducted 57 programs so far, involving 5,322 people. This includes angel fish, aquatic boxing, cardio waves, H2O blast, open therapy, lap swim, swim lessons and water bugs. 

“The aquatics center with its three pools is the most popular program, and the therapy pool and lap swimming are tremendously successful,” Blakeley said. “The Silver Sneakers Program continues to grow and provide recreational opportunities for people over 60.”

Blakeley also provided the Press with a State Department of Health Inspection report in which all three pools scored a 100 out of a possible 100. He said the scores reflect the increased filtration and maintenance procedures at the center. 

Some of the center’s more unique programs include the first Kids Triathlon, held this year with more than 50 children attending, and the Spooky Saturday-Haunted Hayride event that entertained more than 1,500 people.

The Wizard of Oz event, held as five week-long camps for children during school breaks, and Fit to Play summer camp drew a healthy number of participants. In addition, many day camps were held, such as the three-on-three basketball tournament, soccer clinic, basketball clinics and the first Start Smart program for preschool-age children.

Other success included the Winter Break Sports Camp in December 2012, which gathered 80 campers; Spring Break Sports Camp held in April with 60 campers; Fall Break Sports Camp in October with 60 campers; an after-school program that drew 30 kids; a Cinderella Ball in May with more than 80 participants; a Special Day for Special Kids in the spring that rallied more than 15 families; Home-School PE, which averaged 20 kids per class and Start Smart Basketball in the winter of 2013 with 45 children attending. There were also several arts and crafts classes.

“I’m a user of the facility,” Blakeley said. “One year ago, I had knee surgery. Though the surgery was a success, I really was still having trouble walking. I decided to use the therapy pool. I used it three times a week, and I’m walking normally. Now, you want to talk about benefits? I can’t measure that in dollars, and I meet people all the time that have similar stories.”

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