, Salem, MA

March 11, 2013

Our view: Set aside senior center silliness

The Salem News

---- — The Salem City Council and Mayor Kim Driscoll have an eventful week ahead of them as they meet Wednesday to discuss — again — a proposed new senior center.

Let’s hope the discussion goes more smoothly than the one earlier this month over where to hold the meeting. You heard that right — when presented with a chance to resolve one of the longest-running problems in Salem, city officials can’t even agree on where to meet.

Driscoll wanted the meeting held at the current senior center on Broad Street. Several councilors objected before ultimately relenting. And Wednesday’s meeting isn’t the last one to be had on the issue — it’s to decide whether to back a financing plan for the proposal currently on the table.

Yes, there was a bit of tradecraft in Driscoll’s push to have the meeting at the current center, which is old, cramped and barely accessible. It’s the strongest argument one can make for a new center.

But Councilor-at-large William Legault had a point when he expressed concerns that Salem’s cable access television station would not be able to broadcast the meeting live from the current senior center.

“This is a very important and high-profile discussion that should be as accessible to as many people as possible throughout the entire process,” he said. (One could also argue it’s long past time for the council to move out of its postage stamp-sized chambers and into a larger arena, where more citizens would be able to see their representatives at work firsthand, not on the small screen.)

The back-and-forth was typical of the yearslong debate over a new center, where opposing sides have continued to come achingly close to an agreement before being sidetracked by minor issues, major egos or simple obstructionism.

The fact remains that the city desperately needs a new senior center, and the current proposal for one at the corner of Bridge and Boston streets would more than meet the needs of senior citizens while not putting a huge burden on taxpayers. It is by far the city’s best option.

An attempt to locate a new center at a renovated St. Joseph Church site drew opposition from a large number of seniors. A freestanding site near the Willows would cost close to $7 million, with no private component to offset the cost and no evidence the neighborhood would embrace the development.

The Gateway Center proposal calls for a public/private development that would include offices, 374 parking spaces and a 20,000-square-foot community life center on a long-vacant parcel where a Sylvania plant once stood.

At Wednesday night’s meeting, Driscoll will ask the City Council to approve a bond to pay for the city’s $4.9 million share of the $30 million project. The mayor estimates that the $400,000 in property tax revenue the development is expected to bring in would cover the annual bond payments.

Eight councilors need to vote in favor of the bonding plan for the overall proposal to move forward. The council is unlikely to vote on the issue Wednesday night, or at its regular meeting Thursday, even though it could, and should. So there may be more grandstanding to come. And that’s a shame because it’s long past time to put aside the posturing and move forward to give the city’s seniors a center they need and richly deserve.