, Salem, MA

March 12, 2013

Salem's new senior center may be in trouble

By Bethany Bray

---- — SALEM — Mayor Kim Driscoll is passing out stickers printed with the phrase “Salem senior center: Build it now!” and encouraging people to wear them to tomorrow night’s City Council meeting.

Such encouragement is needed, Driscoll said, because it’s looking like the long-awaited project may not get the support it needs.

“We still have several councilors who are non-committed to this project, or are outwardly opposed,” Driscoll said. “We are concerned we may lose the opportunity to move forward. ... There’s a lot of advocacy going on. I’ve reached out to every single councilor, more than once.”

The City Council will meet at the senior center, 5 Broad St., at 6:30 p.m. tomorrow to vet the mayor’s new financing proposal for the community life center planned for the corner of Boston and Bridge streets. But both sides expect that it will serve as an opportunity to reopen the whole question of where to build a new senior center.

If councilors conclude discussion tomorrow night and vote to move the issue out of committee, the senior center financing plan will be put on the agenda for Thursday’s meeting of the full City Council.

“My plan is I want to get it out on Wednesday, and try to vote on it or discuss it at the council meeting (Thursday),” Council President Jerry Ryan said. “But it’s up to the will of the council.”

The financing plan is the final OK needed to start work on Gateway Center, a public/private development that would include offices, 374 parking spaces and a 20,000-square-foot community center — a project that has been years in coming.

Driscoll is asking councilors to approve a bond to pay for the city’s portion of the project. She says the estimated $400,000 in property tax revenue the development should bring in would cover the annual bond payments.

To be approved, the plan needs the support of at least eight of the 11 councilors — a bar that may be tough to meet.

The City Council approved the project with a mixed vote in 2009. Three councilors who opposed the Boston/Bridge location then — Jerry Ryan, Arthur Sargent and Michael Sosnowski — are still on the board.

So are four councilors who voted in favor of the project in 2009: Tom Furey, Robert McCarthy, Paul Prevey and Joseph O’Keefe.

Ryan said he is still opposed to the site and will vote against the plan this week. Sargent and Sosnowski could not be reached for comment.

“I just don’t like the fact that we’ve been waiting on the developer,” Ryan said yesterday. “We should have cut ties a long time ago and moved (the senior center) somewhere else. ... She (the mayor) had the votes in 2009. Now, I don’t know.”

Tomorrow night’s meeting will be taped and rebroadcast on local cable TV. Salem Access Television is unable to broadcast live from the senior center, a fact that lead three councilors to vote against scheduling the meeting.

Ryan said councilors will discuss the issue first, and then he’ll open the floor up for questions and comments from the audience.

“Everyone’s going to have a chance to speak,” he said.

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 location at Boston and Bridge streets, in part because of finances — a price tag of $4.9 million, as opposed to an estimated $7 million at the other locations.

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.

If the project falls through, Driscoll said the city could lose a $25,000 deposit that was paid as part of the purchase-and-sale agreement in 2009.

It would be a “lose-lose” if councilors vote the financing plan down, she said. Not only would the city lose the chance to move seniors out of a “woefully inadequate” facility, but the redevelopment of a long-vacant property may not take place.

“The worst part of all of this is that if this doesn’t move forward, it leaves us with an outdated (senior center) building that needs substantial repairs,” Driscoll said.

A 2010 reuse/feasibility study for 5 Broad St. estimated costs for exterior repairs, with no interior work, at $2.7 million.

“There is no plan B,” the mayor said. “... The heart of the issue is that you either want a senior center, or you don’t.”

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