SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

March 16, 2013

How the senior center was saved

Last-minute negotiating with Salem mayor led council president to change his mind on project

By Bethany Bray
STAFF WRITER

---- — SALEM — City Council President Jerry Ryan walked into Wednesday night’s meeting about the senior center ready to vote against the project.

But over the next 24 hours, he suggested and negotiated three amendments with Mayor Kim Driscoll to make the project more palatable to him and ended up voting in favor of it at Thursday night’s council meeting.

The effort saved the project altogether.

So how did it all come about?

“If you had told me a week ago I would be voting yes on this, I would have said you were crazy,” Ryan said yesterday. “You can’t dig your heels in sometimes.

“Sometimes you have to, but sometimes you have to do what’s best for the city of Salem.

“This was one of the best things I’ve done on the council, to be able to get this turned around.”

Mayor Kim Driscoll needed eight of the 11 councilors to approve a $4.9 million bond — the final OK needed to build a community/senior center as part of a private/public development at Boston and Bridge streets.

Seven councilors had said they planned to vote in favor of the financing package at the conclusion of a nearly four-hour, standing-room-only meeting Wednesday night. The remaining four councilors were either opposed or declined to say where they stood.

“We certainly did not have a good feeling Wednesday night that this was going to move forward,” said Driscoll, who advocated heavily for the senior center. “(Ryan) indicated he still had reservations but wanted to work out a way to get to ‘yes.’ We were able to, throughout the course of Thursday, work on some solutions and reach an accord.”

Ryan said he took notes throughout the Wednesday night session and called Driscoll on Thursday morning with three suggested amendments:

hire a full-time Council on Aging director to work at the new center;

require the developer to begin construction within the next year;

include an agreement with the developer that the city would be “held harmless” if anyone were to become sick from pre-existing contamination at the site.

The long-vacant property at Boston and Bridge streets was once a Sylvania plant. Those opposed to the site have raised concerns over contamination.

The site will be decontaminated as part of the redevelopment.

“I don’t think that (Boston/Bridge) is the best site, but I lost that battle back in 2009,” Ryan said. “I just felt that if this failed, this (senior center) will never get built. ... I feel comfortable that we have escape clauses if something goes wrong.”

“I called the mayor and told her what my concerns were, and she was very agreeable,” he said. “... We were working for the same goal; she wanted to get it done, too.”

Ryan said he was flooded with calls and emails from residents over the senior center issue, even from his third-grade teacher.

Ryan said he called Sen. Joan Lovely, a former Salem city councilor, to run his three amendments by her before he called Driscoll.

Over the course of Thursday, Driscoll vetted Ryan’s amendments with the project developer, the city’s acting finance director and city solicitor. They were all OK with the suggestions, so Driscoll called Ryan back to confirm.

“The developer was willing to cooperate and work with us to get this done,” Driscoll said. “We felt it was important to get this project completed. It’s unfortunate that it took to the last minute, but sometimes that’s just how things work out.”

Ryan introduced the three suggestions on the floor of Thursday night’s council meeting, and they were easily accepted by his colleagues.

Ward 2 Councilor Michael Sosnowski, who had voted against locating the senior center at Boston and Bridge streets in 2009, also changed his position and voted in favor of the project.

The vote was 10-1 to approve the $4.9 million bond. Councilor-at-large Arthur Sargent was the lone vote in opposition.

“It was a team effort. Even the city clerk (helped),” Ryan said. “I want to thank my wife and kids, (too), because I didn’t see them all week. ... I’m just glad this issue is pretty much over.”

Councilors voted first approval of the bond on Thursday. A second vote for final approval — at the board’s next meeting on March 28 — is needed before construction can start.

The city wasted no time, placing a legal ad with The Salem News yesterday announcing the $4.9 million bond with Ryan’s three amendments attached.

As part of Driscoll’s financing package, the current senior center, a 150-year-old building at 5 Broad St., will be sold once the new center is completed.

The 20,000-square-foot Gateway Center will be part of a public/private development that will also include offices and a 374-space parking lot. In 2009, the city signed a $5 million purchase-and-sale agreement with developer High Rock LLC to buy a large portion of the building for a senior center.

Discussions of a new senior center in Salem have spanned decades. Multiple locations have been considered over the tenure of several mayors.

“I’m elated, truly elated,” Driscoll said of Thursday’s council vote. “It’s been a chief goal of mine since taking office. I’m glad we were able to come together to be able to achieve it.”

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