TRAVERSE CITY — Voters will not have the option of deciding whether they favor a millage for a new senior center after Grand Traverse County board members took no action at a special meeting Tuesday.
All commissioners attended the remote meeting, none expressed support for putting the millage on the ballot, including some who had done so previously.
“I’m somewhat heartsick,” said Commissioner Bryce Hundley. “I’m a real advocate for the senior center in that location but I feel like being down to the wire and forced to make a decision doesn’t tend to lend itself toward making the best decisions.”
A new senior center building, and how to pay to construct and maintain it, has been discussed by various officials and citizens groups for more than two decades.
The latest of these is Friends of the Senior Center, which has been advocating for the new building for several years — a similar group disbanded in 2014, city documents show.
“We need and expect the help of our city and county commissioners,” Lillian Adler Ostendorf, vice president of the group, said during the public comment portion of the meeting. “In the age of COVID-19, feelings of isolation and frustration may be more prominent in our senior population.”
Ostendorf thanked city and county staff for their efforts, but reserved her highest praise for Senior Center Manager Lori Wells and her staff.
“For the past 20-some years they have miraculously provided the growing senior population with social programs, lifelong learning programs, programs to improve one’s health and the ability to socialize all in three small dilapidated rooms,” she said.
Commissioner Sonny Wheelock, Jr. made a motion to officially decline to put the senior center millage on the Nov. 4 ballot, but it failed for lack of a second and the meeting adjourned.
“We called a special meeting for the purpose of discussing ballot language,” Wheelock said. “I just think that it would appropriate for us to at least have a vote.”
“I don’t feel like we really require one,” Board Chairman Rob Hentschel replied. “No action is the same as taking action, in my opinion.”
The millage to fund programming at the senior center at 801 E. Front Street, and satellite programs in outlying townships highlighted by Commissioner Ron Clous, will remain the same, said Kristine Erickson, Director of Grand Traverse County Parks and Recreation and Senior Center Network.
Mayor Jim Carruthers, who supports the project, said he couldn’t understand why the county didn’t put the millage question to voters and called it the “citizens’ loss.”
The county requested in late June to lease the new building, at which it has provided services for years, and city commissioners agreed to ask city voters in November to OK such a lease, as previously reported.
Tuesday’s meeting originally was planned as a joint one between the city and the county, but city Manager Marty Colburn previously said shifting times and county commissioners’ short-notice request to conditionally approve a draft lease prompted the city to opt out.
Carruthers still wants to reach an agreement with the county to build a new senior center, he said. But he faulted the county for delaying that process by another year through what he called “political shenanigans.”
“The city has spent a lot of time on this,” he said. “We’ve got a lot going on in the city, so to waste so much time with the minutiae that the county keeps bringing out at the 11th hour, it’s wasting everybody’s time.”
“I can’t speak for the city,” Erickson said, after the meeting, “but I know the county really did want this to happen and worked really hard on it. There’s going to be a lot of disappointment.”
Delays and disappointment aren’t new to those advocating for a new senior center building, as the following timeline, from county and city commission meeting minutes and the county’s parks and recreation documents, illustrates:
A fundraising and project awareness campaign for a new senior center begins and includes a citizens participation study and future recommendations.
A $4 million construction quote is received following an analysis of an architect study by GBKP Architects.
Senior Center Manager Lori Wells begins working with members of a local community foundation to raise funds for a new center.
Initial plans call for a new two-story, 20,000-square foot building on the 3.7-acre Front Street site. Cost estimates are $4.5 million. The awareness campaign has raised $100,000 and city commissioners approve a temporary fund agreement with the Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation for the center’s capital campaign.
Members of a local citizens committee made up of city residents and property owners led by Michael Gillman recommend selling the senior center property for private, tax-generating development. Sale proceeds would go to building a new facility at a different site.
Senior Center officials maintain their plan is still to build a larger, $4.5 million building at the property and the Friends of the Senior Center group is formed.
Members of Friends of the Traverse City Senior Center review 19 alternate locations for a new senior center building, including the Civic Center and locations on the state hospital grounds. The group still prefers the Front Street site. A feasibility study finds the group could raise $4 million.
City Commissioners agree to release $218,000 from a senior center building fund to begin a major remodel of the existing building. The money will help pay for new plumbing and electrical and is meant to kick-start a fundraising campaign to meet the estimated $500,000 remodeling cost.
Commissioners agree with conclusions made by the Senior Center Project committee and the Grand Traverse County Commission on Aging that a new, same-site building — with an estimated $7-9 million price tag — wasn’t financially reachable.
A $1.5 million fundraising drive to further renovate the senior center is discussed. The building’s interior would be gutted, new windows and insulation would be added as would an outdoor patio facing the water.
City commissioners approve the renovations. The senior center is now operated by the Commission on Aging, and Wells seeks their approval as well.
A joint city-county administrative team again looks at the long-simmering efforts to tear down the senior center building and replace it, after Wells show officials photographs of cracked walls, rusty doors and deteriorating windows.
The city and county agree in September to put existing money toward a new $4-6 million building — $414,835 from the city and $250,000 the county originally appropriated for new senior center furnishings.
Traverse City owns the building and the Grand Traverse County Senior Center Network, part of the county’s Parks and Recreation department, provides programming. County Administrator Nate Alger says city and county legal counsel are drafting a new intergovernmental agreement.
City and county officials select Environment Architects, one of three firms they interviewed. The firm was assigned to gather input from senior center users, staff and the general public.
Ray Kendra of Environment Architects previewed plans to city commissioners for the new, two-story building that would have 15,000 square feet and cost an estimated $5.5 million.
Senior Center Friends called for a one-year, one-mill levy to pay for the new building.
Research by county staff shows the “one and done” mill to pay for the building is not feasible. Michigan law imposes a 1 mill-limit for support of senior services and there is currently a .6 mill “on the books” for programming.
A more detailed timeline of senior center building negotiations and plans between 2000 and 2018 can be seen on pages 12-16 in a City Commission Study Session packet from August 2018.