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Senior center surprise: City may buy existing site PDF Print E-mail
Written by Kristyn Halbig Ziehm   
Wednesday, 02 November 2016 19:08

Frustrated by stalled search for new facility, Port council wants to purchase renovated church it now leases

In an abrupt about-face, Port Washington aldermen on Tuesday said they are willing to consider buying the senior center building at 403 W. Foster St. in order to ensure the program has a home even after the lease runs out in July.

Officials said the purchase of the building could cost between $400,000 and $600,000 and, depending on negotiations, could take place by the end of the year.

Aldermen took no action on the potential purchase, which was listed on the agenda as a discussion item rather than an action item, but agreed to discuss it further at the Nov. 15 Common Council meeting.

This stance is a change from the view two years ago, when aldermen said they did not want to provide a senior center facility.  They were willing to provide programming and staff, officials said, but seniors needed to take charge of the building.

Since then, numerous committees and groups affiliated with the senior center have been working to come up with an alternative site for the center, with the Commission on Aging recommending the city buy the Aurora Medical Clinic building at 1777 W. Grand Ave. and renovate it for a senior center — a project estimated to cost $1.25 million.

Aldermen said that if the city buys the existing center, it wouldn’t preclude seniors from pursuing the purchase of the Aurora building, but that’s a process that could take years, especially since the seniors haven’t begun fundraising efforts.

Leasing the center for that long is an expensive venture, officials said, and it isn’t a sure thing, since the owners, Paul and Jan Schueller, have put the building on the market.

“The city is making a decision to ensure we’re not kicking seniors out on the street six months from now,” Ald. Doug Biggs said.

Ald. Dave Larson added, “I do not want to be in a position where we have nothing for the seniors. Overall, it’s a nice building, it’s going to do a good job. The landlord is willing to work with us. 

“We have a lot of money invested in the current building to this point. We feel we can negotiate a favorable deal. This doesn’t preclude us from looking at other options.  This is the council planning properly so the seniors have a facility.”

While the city originally said it did not want to own the senior center building, “it looks like no matter which way we go, we’re going to end up owning a building,” Larson added, noting this would be a condition of grants the city has applied for.

Since the city began leasing the existing center in 2011, seniors have been vocal in their complaints about the building, particularly the lack of convenient parking and accessibility issues.

But in a memo to aldermen, City Administrator Mark Grams estimated that half the seniors are happy with the current center and half would prefer the Aurora building.

The idea of buying the current center is also sure to frustrate those who want to see the senior center be incorporated into a larger community center, something that was favored by a majority of city residents in a survey done last year.

John Sigwart, acting chairman of the senior center’s ad  hoc strategic planning committee, blasted the council, saying if the city buys the current facility, the decision will have repercussions for decades.

“I want you to consider the future if you purchase this building,” Sigwart told aldermen. “You will, in effect, kill the opportunity for a community center in this city. It will be lost. You did not discuss that for a minute. 

“It kills the Aurora building — it doesn’t just modify it.”

At the very least, Sigwart said, the city should talk to Aurora officials to see if they would significantly reduce the asking price, making the purchase something that’s feasible in the near future.

Efforts to determine where the senior center should be located and fundraising to buy a building have been time consuming with few solid results, leading some officials to question whether the city is on the right track.

The city recently received a Community Development Block Grant to help fund a feasibility study for the senior center, and while this was intended to examine the Aurora building, it could also be used to analyze the current center, officials said.

The grant could pave the way for as much as a $500,000 grant toward the acquisition and renovation of a senior center, but that’s far from a sure thing, officials said.

“The likelihood of getting a grant there is probably not the best,” Grams said, noting the city has been turned down for other grants from the program.

Buying and renovating the Aurora building is an expensive proposition, and one that would take time, he added.

“You’re probably looking at two or three years down the road before you get a final answer,” Grams said. “In the meantime, you’re continuing the lease.”

And the lease payments during that time could total hundreds of thousands of dollars, he added.

That money could pay a significant portion of the cost of buying the current center, Ald. Bill Driscoll, who is a member of the Commission on Aging, said.

The price of the building has fallen significantly from the roughly $600,000 asking price it started with, Driscoll said, while the cost of buying and renovating the Aurora building seems to be increasing from the $1 million originally estimated.

“We’re already talking about a million and a half, and there are people warning that might not be enough,” he said.

Driscoll said that when the prospect of buying the current center was broached at a meeting of the ad hoc planning committee, some members seemed relieved.

“I think we should make a decision,” Driscoll added. “It’s been two years.”

By buying the building now, the city could apply the $35,000 slated for rent payments for the first six months of 2017 to the purchase, he added.

Driscoll also noted that the Aurora building is larger than the senior center needs, and no other city departments have said they would want to move into the structure.

When the city first leased the former St. John’s Church in 2011, it spent more than $235,000 to renovate the building, including adding an elevator, so it could function as a senior center.

Mayor Tom Mlada noted that seniors have had some significant concerns with the current structure.

“The more we talk about it, the more it seems they’re solvable,” he said.

Ald. Dan Becker said the purchase of the current center is “a great avenue to pursue, and the sooner, the better.”

“Obviously the city made a commitment to the seniors years ago,” he said, when it renovated the current facility. “If we can own it, we can do further improvements. I just think it’s the right way to go — it’s fiscally the right thing to do considering the investment we’ve already made.”

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