, Salem, MA

February 8, 2013

Senior center back on agenda in Salem

Mayor's new finance proposal could cause City Council showdown

By Bethany Bray

---- — SALEM — It seems the stage is being set for a showdown over plans for a new senior center.

The mayor needs eight of 11 councilors to approve a new financing plan for the proposed community life center at the corner of Boston and Bridge streets. The matter will come before the City Council for the first time next Thursday, Feb. 14.

But three councilors voted against the plan for the senior center in 2009, and if all of them maintain their opposition, it would take only one more vote to kill the 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 — a project that has been years in coming.

Four years ago, Councilors Jerry Ryan, Michael Sosnowski and Arthur Sargent — all of whom are still on the council — voted against locating a new senior center at Boston and Bridge streets. The rest of the council voted to approve a purchase and sale agreement to purchase a condominium on the first floor of the building for a new senior center.

Ryan says he’s still opposed, because he would prefer a stand-alone senior center.

“I’m pretty sure there’s going to be debate on the location,” Ryan said this week. “I understand what (the mayor) is trying to do, she’s trying to get that corner built. ... Myself, I have an issue with the location.”

Sosnowski and Sargent could not be reached for comment.

Driscoll said she’s briefed councilors who weren’t on the board in 2009.

“We don’t have a Plan B,” Driscoll said. “... This needs eight votes, (and) I’m concerned we may not get there.”

Councilor Robert McCarthy, who voted in favor of the project in 2009, said he hasn’t looked over the details of the mayor’s financing proposal yet, but is in favor of the Boston and Bridge streets location.

“The question isn’t where anybody thinks it should go. The question in front of us is financing,” said McCarthy. “I’m still supportive of the location if the funding works; I just need to look at it (the financing proposal).”

The City Council will meet at 7 p.m. on Thursday at City Hall.

Ryan, the council president, said the board will probably vote to send the financing proposal to committee, possibly the subcommittee on administration and finance, to vet the proposal before it comes back to the full council for a vote.

Longtime Councilor Joseph O’Keefe said the board has already discussed the center’s location, and shouldn’t revisit the debate.

“We spent enough time researching what’s the best place, and in my mind this is the best place,” said O’Keefe. “I feel we should move on with this project. It’s been talked about so long. ... Why open up the whole discussion (again)?”

Councilor Josh Turiel also said he’s in favor of giving the project the green light.

“What we have right now is the best compromise we can get to, and also the best chance to get it built at a reasonable price,” said Turiel. “... I would have supported doing it as part of St. Joseph’s (church redevelopment, which was considered as a location), but now that it’s all put together (for Bridge and Boston streets), I will support it.”

Turiel said there is “a vocal contingent” that wants the senior center in a different location, but “we already have (council) consensus on this site. It makes sense.”

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, she 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.

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 at the corner of Boston and Bridge streets, the former site of a Sylvania plant, has been vacant for years. The city’s Council on Aging currently operates at 5 Broad St. — a facility the mayor says has long been outgrown.

“I’m embarrassed when I walk into our senior center now,” said Driscoll. “The time is now. We can’t afford to wait.”

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

“This feels like the sprint to the finish of a very long race,” Veno said.

If the financing proposal is voted down, the city not only will lose the community center but the redevelopment of a long-vacant lot, Driscoll said. High Rock officials have said they would not go ahead with the project without the community center as the anchor.

If the financing is approved, construction could start as soon as possible, Driscoll said.

Councilor William Legault, who was appointed to the board last month, said he has yet to make a decision about the project’s financing.

“There’s still numbers to be crunched,” said Legault. “I will keep looking at the numbers and information, meet with people and make a decision when the time comes.

“I have heard from a few people, not many. I’m not getting a whole lot of negative feedback (about the project),” Legault said. “People are tired of this discussion (over location) coming up every time the senior center comes up.”

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