TRAVERSE CITY — Grand Traverse County officials say building a new senior center on property it owns on LaFranier Road is just one possibility.
The building could include offices for the county Commission on Aging, Veterans Affairs and the county’s Senior Center Network, the latter of which is now crowded into a small, aging building owned by the city of Traverse City.
But those seniors who use the waterfront building located in Milliken Park say they don’t want the center to move. They want a new facility in the same spot at East Front and Barlow streets, and it’s a question that has stretched on for more than 20 years, back at least to a fundraising campaign that launched in 2000.
“When I go down to the senior center, I sit there and I look at the water and it has a calming influence on me,” said Lillian Adler Ostendorf, vice president of Senior Center Friends. She and other leaders of the 3-year-old reboot of a group of people dedicated to replacing the picnic shelter-turned activity center are dismayed that the county’s latest moves could once again delay any fix or replacement.
County Administrator Nate Alger said a plan that county and city officials resolved to create in 2018 but which hit an impasse between the two governments in 2020 is still on the table.
“If we can make everything come back together again, it is still a possibility,” he said.
That would depend on resolving the impasse, a possibility that seems increasingly scarce as city and county officials dig in.
“If the county wants to pull the rug from under us and move the building then they need to do it, because we need to consider what we want to do with our waterfront park,” said city Mayor Jim Carruthers.
The building’s future also depends on how the county decides to combine its services for its older residents into one spot, Alger said. Whichever model is chosen would influence the building design, which in turn would be a factor in where it could be located.
An ad hoc committee to look at the issue was appointed in August and met for the first time in April. Members were appointed by the county Parks and Recreation Commission and include county representatives.
That didn’t escape Carruthers’ notice, although Alger said the process will include more input, and so far the ad hoc has focused on hearing from service providers.
The current center could be used as a satellite, similar to others in Kingsley, Fife Lake and Interlochen, or a new building could have a community room, said county parks Director Kristine Erickson.
“We’ve not let go of the waterfront property idea,” Erickson said. “That could be the Traverse City outreach location.”
The Grand Traverse County Board hosted a study session last week to discuss, among other things, the senior center.
Erickson, who recently gave a presentation on the Senior Center Network, said there is a lot of confusion among the public about the center and overcoming that confusion is a challenge.
MONEY AND MILLAGES
Robert Steadman, president of the Senior Center Friends, said the group proposes the county use some of the $18 million in federal American Rescue Plan dollars it is receiving to build a new senior center in its current location and another building for the Commission on Aging, something he said county seniors support.
“We believe the new senior center has been waiting substantially more than 20 years and certainly has a very high priority, as well as serving 40 percent of the county population,” Steadman said. “We have an extraordinary site on the bay. Let’s build an extraordinary senior center there.”
The Senior Center Network is supported by a 0.0972-mill property tax that will collect $530,506 this year. Another 0.4869 tax brought in $2,658,415 for the Commission on Aging.
The county was also ready in 2020 to go to voters with a 0.4-mill, three-year millage proposal for construction of a new center, Alger said.
Money from that would have helped pay for a proposed building with 15,500 square feet of floor space at a cost of $5,584,000, according to an estimate from Environment Architects.
The Senior Center building in Milliken Park is owned by the city and run by the county in a management agreement that has been in place for several years.
Both governments inked the current agreement in February 2016, and it expires in December, language shows. The county pays $45,572 per year for building repairs and maintenance.
Alger said there is a significant amount of confusion about what happened in August 2020. The city has the opportunity to build a new center and the county and city had previously agreed to work together to make that happen.
That came to an end when the city chose not to go to voters and ask for a lease, he said.
City Manager Marty Colburn previously said he withdrew the city from an Aug. 11, 2020, meeting to discuss a 50-year lease for the new building after the time was changed, in part because city commissioners would’ve had less than 24 hours to review the draft language.
While city commissioners agreed Aug. 3, 2020, to place a lease question on the ballot, county commissioners didn’t act on a proposal to levy a tax countywide — including the city — at a meeting on Aug. 11, as previously reported. City commissioners pulled the lease question from the ballot shortly after.
City leaders were irked by the lease request at the time, while county leaders said they wanted a firm property interest in something that taxpayers countywide would help build, as previously reported.
Alger said county commissioners requested the lease include the building and grounds, but the ballot question city commissioners approved only covered the building.
City commissioners previously balked at giving up control of the park beyond the building’s footprint, and Carruthers reiterated that Friday.
Both city and county officials have since traded blame for the disintegration.
“We went back to the city and said you need to have the grounds on the ballot language as well, and the city did not want to make the change,” Alger said. “They chose not to act on it.”
Carruthers bristled at any blame being levied at the city, and said city leaders kept their end of the deal by placing the lease question on the ballot.
“The county is just going to blame us for making this not happen,” he said. “I get they don’t want to take the blame. No one wants to take the blame, but the city is the one that moved forward in getting the consultant ... when it came down to supporting a resolution to put this on the ballot, that’s when all the sudden the county said ‘no.’”
ONE BUILDING, TWO GOVERNMENTS
While the county and city agreed to work together on a new building, the current city-owned site has issues, said Lori Wells, formerly the Grand Traverse County Senior Center Network director. Those would make a bigger building, as architectural plans from 2019 called for, difficult to fit in.
Parking was one concern, Wells said, as the lot in the drawings seemed too small to serve a bigger building. That issue and others wouldn’t have been obstacles if the plans were for county-owned property.
“It just seemed like we kept circling back to that same issue, different questions would get raised and so they would be resolved, but then every roadblock would always end with, ‘But it’s not county property,’” she said.
Parking issues could have been solved at Barlow Street’s dead end and, with the owner’s agreement, by using the Hagerty Center as event parking, Carruthers said.
Offering the same services to more people in the new building would’ve been no problem, Wells said. Expanding those offerings would have been difficult, although the network’s satellite locations or extending hours could have helped.
Charter provisions mean Traverse City must ask city voters to approve any transfer of property interest in parklands — provisions that recently prompted 13th Circuit Court Judge Thomas Power to block building a fish passageway in Union Street Dam Park.
Those same requirements could apply to a management agreement, city Attorney Lauren Trible-Laucht said. The city’s own guideline is that anything longer than 25 years would require city voter approval, as it’s 10 years shy of a property transfer as defined by state property tax laws. But it’s a question the city never has seriously studied before, and Power hinted in his fish passageway ruling that management agreements might not need a vote.
County discussions now revolve around providing a better continuity of services for the county’s aging population, Alger said. That has included conversations with the Northwest Community Action Agency, the Area Agency on Aging and more, he said.
“We don’t know where we are going to be,” Alger said. “What we do know is that the model we use to provide senior services is going to change.”
Since August the process to consider those changes has stalled, but is moving forward, he said.
Putting both departments under one is nothing new, neither for other counties nor for Grand Traverse, Wells said. The Senior Center Network operated as part of the Commission on Aging from 2010, when the former went from a city department to under the county’s government, to 2015 when it was moved to the county parks and recreation department.
Adler Ostendorf said combining services is all good and fine, but there’s a considerable difference in the type of services. Carruthers echoed this, noting the Commission on Aging’s services are mostly home-based while the senior center is a gathering place.
The committee plans to meet again soon, Erickson said, though no date has been set.
Carruthers said it’s time for the county to stop dragging its feet and decide on the future of the city-owned building, as the city could have its own questions to answer.
Alger said there’s no specific timelime for such a decision. He denied the county’s dragging its feet, and said discussions for how to provide senior services overall started not long after the impasse.
Included in the proposed July 2021-through-June 2022 city budget is $35,000 for a public input process on what future parkland uses Milliken Park could host, Colburn said. The building is in bad shape and needs to be demolished regardless of the park’s future.
“We would want to work with the community on revisioning how to best use that particular park right on the waterfront,” he said.
Both Steadman and Adler Ostendorf said they fear moving the senior center away from the bay is all but a foregone conclusion, despite all the assurances otherwise.
OURS OR THEIRS
The county does not own any of the five locations at which the Senior Center Network provides programming.
“There is no county senior center,” said Commission Chair Rob Hentschel. “We’re not moving any county building because we don’t have a county building in the Senior Center Network. If the city does build a bigger building, that’s their prerogative and I’m sure that we would be happy to put senior services in there.”
Commissioner Betsy Coffia said people don’t care who owns the park, they just want to be able to use the facility.
“We have a beautiful location for the Traverse City-based senior center and our seniors like that location and want to keep coming to that location,” Coffia said. “They want a better building and they’re asking us as government to work with our partners and make that happen.”
Coffia questioned why there were no members of the Senior Center Friends on the ad hoc committee, though many have expressed interest. Coffia said she’d also like to see representation from the city.
“The idea was to expand as we go forward, but the initial thing was just to introduce this concept,” Erickson said. “We want more community input and this is going to happen starting with the next meeting.”
Alger said city representation is something he will consider.
He added after the county meeting that the friends group will be invited, and that their position on the current building is well-known.
Carruthers said he couldn’t back the idea of a satellite location over the previous proposal, especially if the county opts to build a new, large senior center elsewhere. And Steadman also dismissed the possibility as a “second-class” center.
But Alger said any judgment is premature, and it’s possible the county comes up with something better.
If the site becomes a satellite, Wells said she hopes it’s a compromise that most people can accept.
“No matter what we did and no matter what decision is made, there’s always going to be somebody not thrilled with it, but I feel like the majority of people would accept that if that’s where they went,” she said.
Carruthers and Alger, reached separately, did agree on one thing: lost in any discussion of blame are the people who actually use the senior center.
They’re still making do with a building that officials in both governments agreed was in a sorry state ahead of their 2018 resolution to replace it.
Adler Ostendorf said her memories of the park stretch through her life, among them playing shuffleboard on the courts as a kid and having her parents’ 50th wedding anniversary there.
“I can’t afford to own a property on the water, so I get to go down there whenever I want and be involved, and it’s a perfect spot for it,” she said.