SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

March 4, 2013

Senior center debate persists

Salem: Both sides gearing up for crowd and controversy at March 13 meeting

By Bethany Bray
STAFF WRITER

---- — Debate over the proposed new senior center — an issue in Salem for years — is heating up again.

Last week, even the attempt to schedule a meeting to discuss it drew the scrutiny of city councilors.

In the end, the vote was 6-3 to schedule the meeting for Wednesday, March 13, at 6:30 p.m. Councilors Michael Sosnowski, Todd Siegel and William Legault were opposed. Councilors Arthur Sargent and Paul Prevey were absent.

It was the meeting location — a request of Mayor Kim Driscoll — that was unpopular with some on the board. She asked that it be held at the city’s current senior center at 5 Broad St.

“This is our council chambers. This is where we do our work,” Siegel said, referring to the council chamber at City Hall.

He said he was opposed to having the meeting in a location where it couldn’t be televised live on local cable television.

Legault agreed.

“This is a very important and high-profile discussion that should be as accessible to as many people as possible throughout the entire process,” Legault said in an email after the Thursday night meeting. “If we want to have off-site meetings on important matters like the senior center, then we should work with SATV to install the proper equipment at selected venues.”

Sosnowski, the Ward 2 councilor, said he wanted to make sure microphones at the meeting would pick up “every word” from the audience and that the meeting would be rebroadcast in full, unedited.

Ward 1 Councilor Robert McCarthy noted, however, that the council has held meetings outside of City Hall several times in the past.

“This room (at City Hall) is not conducive to large crowds,” McCarthy said.

Siegel, the Ward 3 councilor, suggested that the meeting be held at Salem High School, which has a television studio and the space to handle crowds.

In the end, the council approved setting the meeting at the senior center. Salem Access Television will tape the meeting and rebroadcast it.

But the controversy is another indication, if any were needed, that this is shaping up to be a major issue. Technically, it’s a discussion of a new financing plan for the center, proposed for the intersection of Boston and Bridge streets — not an issue that would normally draw a big crowd. But all sides are gearing up for what could be a reopening of the whole issue of where to site the senior center, as some are still unhappy with the mayor’s and City Council’s choice of locations.

Plans for the community/senior center were approved by the City Council in 2009. This winter, the council is considering Driscoll’s request to bond for the city’s portion of the senior center project. The financing plan would be the final OK needed to build the Gateway Center, a public/private development that would include offices, 374 parking spaces and a 20,000-square-foot community center.

Four years ago, Councilors Jerry Ryan, Michael Sosnowski and Arthur Sargent — all of whom are still on the council — voted against the location at Boston and Bridge streets.

The City Council will have a regularly scheduled meeting on March 14, the day after the senior center discussion. The board could vote on the financing proposal then, but several councilors said they were opposed to voting so soon after the March 13 meeting.

Ryan, the council president, told councilors the board wouldn’t have to vote on March 14; they would do so only if councilors choose to move the issue out of committee on March 13.

“I thought this (the March 13 meeting) was a good compromise with the mayor’s office,” Ryan said.

Driscoll could not be reached for comment.

The road to a new senior center in Salem has been long and controversial. Multiple locations have been considered over the tenure of several mayors.

In 2009, a committee headed by then-Councilors Joan Lovely and Matt Veno vetted several locations for a community life center. After seeking input from across the city, the committee chose three sites to recommend to the mayor.

After further investigation, Driscoll chose the Boston and Bridge streets location, in part because of finances — a price tag of $4.9 million, as opposed to an estimated $7 million at the other locations. Further, she said that tax revenue from the private portion of the building should offset the city’s costs.

The city signed a $5 million purchase-and-sale agreement with developer High Rock LLC to buy a large portion of a proposed four-story building for a senior/community life center. The remainder of the building is slated for professional offices, such as medical and law offices.

The parcel was the site of a Sylvania plant and has been vacant for years.

Bethany Bray can be reached at bbray@salemnews.com and on Twitter @SalemNewsBB.