Robin Cogger, York's current director of parks and recreation, right, sits across the table from her predecessor in the role, Mike Sullivan. Cogger says a new community center in the town could include space for area seniors. But those who spend time at the current York Senior Center say they told Sullivan before he retired a year ago they don't want to be included in the project. Credit: Ioanna Raptis | The York Weekly

YORK, Maine — A group of about 75 York Senior Center members sent a letter to town officials saying they don’t want the center to leave its current York Beach home and raising concerns about the impact on them of a multigenerational community center.

The letter came just before the Nov. 6 election, when voters are being asked to cast ballots on a measure that would incorporate a 2017 community center needs assessment report into the comprehensive plan. This is a necessary first step before the town can launch a feasibility study that would provide concrete data on costs, location, amenities and other factors.

Parks and Recreation Director Robin Cogger urged voters to consider that their vote on Article 7 does not commit the town to anything but simply moves the dialogue forward. The needs assessment report determined there was “enough positive interest” to find out whether a community center is even feasible in town. It would likely be another six to 10 years before a center was built, if the town decided to move forward with one.

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The seniors’ letter lists a number of concerns. The center as envisioned would cater to all age groups. The letter writers said seniors do not want to deal with young children or teenagers, either in a parking lot or inside the center, as many seniors use walkers and canes.

In addition, they are concerned about increased costs if they had to move from their Main Street center behind the former police station to a new facility. Many seniors, the letter states, “are on limited and fixed incomes. They cannot afford extra fees for lunch, activities, trips, fees for use of a pool or an increase in membership.”

Rather, they suggest, the town should expand the center into the old police station portion of the building. “The center…is a sanctuary for people who wish to socialize, have an affordable meal, visit with friends and participate in activities…rather than remain housebound,” the letter states. Expanding on site, they argue, would allow for the center to grow in the future.

Lorraine Robbins, one of half a dozen senior center members who spearheaded the signature gathering, said they were spurred to action after reading an article in the York Weekly in which Cogger said she’d like to see everyone from youngsters to seniors served at a new community center.

“We said, no, that’s not for us,” said Robbins. She said former parks and rec director Mike Sullivan spoke with seniors a year ago, “and we told him up front then that we did not want to be incorporated with the community center.”

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She said the group in turn penned the letter and sought signatories from among other senior center members. “Honestly, we did not get one refusal about signing. Everyone we asked was all for it.”

Cogger said she understands the seniors’ concerns, but said she believes they may be premature. One of the recommendations in the needs assessment report, for instance, is for a dedicated senior space in any future community center. “To me, that speaks to the issues that they raised. The recommendations were based on feedback from the community, that there be discreet spaces for different groups.”

Seniors were very involved while the needs assessment was being formulated, she said. Two focus groups were dedicated to seniors, she said, as opposed to one for other stakeholders like families, businesses, students and others. In addition, seniors in significant numbers attended a public forum held during the input stages of the assessment.

Regarding the possibility of increased fees to seniors, she said, “I absolutely understand that fear. What I would like to make clear is that those are the kinds of issues that will be addressed in a feasibility study. It would look at senior incomes and other incomes, and how best the entire community, including seniors, could afford a center.”

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She said the Parks and Recreation Department has a good reputation of working with private businesses and companies to put forth programming. Why not, for instance, find a partner willing to help implement a senior scholarship program. “Four dollars (for a meal at the senior center) seems like a small price but there are some who can’t afford even that.”

Robbins, meanwhile, said her group plans to continue to advocate for the existing senior center and said she feels like they have the support of the senior center members at their backs. “We don’t need our taxes going up any higher. Many of us are already having difficulties, and they’re going to put more on us by having a community center?”

Town Manager Steve Burns said he understands the seniors are “afraid of losing what they’ve got. But the solution can’t just be, ‘Give us the old police station.’ What about the expense of renovating that?” he said. “The senior center is stuck in a rut, and I worry the building is that rut.”

Of 6,000 or so seniors in this town, a small percentage of those people actually are members of the senior center, he said. “It’s really serving about 5 percent of the senior community in town. They need to be thinking much more broadly. We need creative, positive thinking.”

He said he will bring this subject up to selectmen, who were named along with Burns as recipients of the letter, at an upcoming meeting and he will also go down to the center to talk with members.

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