Budget cuts may force center to close at current site

by Frank DeLoache

CORNELIUS – When Virginia Church moved to Huntersville four years ago from Sterling, Va., she didn’t have any friends in the area – until she stopped by the North Mecklenburg Senior Center.

Now, she’s a regular in the game room at the center, which rents space from The River Church, at 18731 W. Catawba Ave. in Cornelius. She especially loves card games, but Friday morning, May 13, she was studying her tiles in a serious game of Mexican Train, which is a variant of Dominoes.

Sitting at the table with her were Joan Davis and Wendy Klemm, who are neighbors in Cornelius, and Bonnie Amato, who splits her time between Huntersville and Pennsylvania. They are among 400 seniors who visit the center each week to take part in activities and – more importantly – to meet friends.

Since it opened six years ago, the North Mecklenburg Senior Center has grown in popularity, but that popularity is straining the budget of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Senior Centers Inc., the nonprofit organization that runs the center.

Utility bills to keep the church building open during the week have grown, and River Church leaders have been forced to increase the rent – to a point where the Senior Centers can’t afford to stay much longer, possibly past June 30.

This is not the first budget crisis for the senior center. In 2009, faced with the possibility of running out of funds, the center and its director, Joanne Ahern, lead a Save Our Seniors campaign raising $65,000 and saving the center temporarily. But with the church’s costs continuing to increase, the Senior Centers’ leadership realized it had to find another location, according to Bob Shaffer, president of the Senior Centers board.

But after searching quietly since November, looking at churches, facilities of the three and commercial property, leaders of the organization have found nothing. So they are taking northern center’s plight public, hoping that someone will come forward with enough space to house the center’s programs at a price the organization can afford.

“We can no longer use this facility (at River Church) because of our limited resources,” Trena Palmer, executive director of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Senior Centers, said in a statement. “Pastor Kelly Parker has been gracious to let us stay in these quarters while we searched for new space. But we have had no luck in locating affordable space.”

Though June 30 is not as hard and fast deadline to keep the North Mecklenburg Senior Center open, it is the last day of the budget year, Shaffer said, and the Senior Centers’ board is not expecting to get an infusion of money for next year’s budget.

“The best we can hope for is to avoid getting cut more,” Shaffer said.

The Seniors Centers’ main funding comes from two sources: United Way and Mecklenburg County. The county is facing major cutbacks, Shaffer said, and United Way leaders have said they may change their current approach to funding and focus on “community priorities” such as education and nonprofits that support critical needs within the community. This future shift could change the funding of member agencies significantly.

The Senior Centers suffered cuts to its budget last year, and Shaffer said the board already has reduced programs and services, eliminated raises for its employees, reduced contributions to their pensions and frozen one vacant position on the 12-employee staff.

When looking at the organization’s four centers, the organization operates three centers at little to no rent:

• The headquarters building at 2225 Tyvola Road, though Senior Centers must pay for building operation.

• The Senior Center on Shamrock, located near the Aldersgate community, at 3925 Willard Farrow Drive.

• The Bette Rae Thomas Recreation Center in West Charlotte.

That makes the North Mecklenburg Senior Center – at about $3,000 a month – the most expensive center to maintain, Shaffer said.

To keep the current number of programs, the North Mecklenburg Senior Center needs a minimum of 4,000 square feet of space – to meet state standards – and really could use 6,000 square feet, Shaffer and Ahern said. But because the center serves seniors, it operates Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and needs a facility that is easily accessible to older citizens.

None of three northern towns have that kind of space available, Ahern said. Some larger churches have space, but they also offer many weekday programs and don’t have enough room to spare for the senior center programming, Ahern said.

The officials even looked at the Davidson IB school facility, which will be vacant at the end of the school year, but the building doesn’t meet Americans with Disabilities Act standards and would cost at least $100,000 to upfit, Shaffer said.

“We’re out of options,” Shaffer added. “We’d love to find a partner and find a facility. We’re open to suggestions.”

A businessman himself, Shaffer said he understands budget cuts and the need to support education and people hit by the economy. But he pointed out that in the next decade, people who are 60 or older will be the largest growing segment of the population.

And if local and national leaders are worried about holding down health-care costs, they can’t make better investments than programs for seniors, Shaffer and Ahern said.

On Friday, while 15 or 20 men and women played Mexican Train and learned healthy eating tips in the River Church kitchen, Ahern noted that a woman in her 80s was taking her first lesson in line dancing in the church’s auditorium.

“The fact that she’s here says she’s mentally active, and a friend invited her here,” Ahern said. “So that means she’s getting out of the house, she’s not isolated and she’s building a network of friends. That’s really what the programs here are all about – support and the health and wellness of our seniors.”

Anyone who has a recommendation for another site for the North Mecklenburg Senior Center can contact Ahern at 704-892-4041 or northmeckdirector@cmseniorcenters.org.  Or contact Trena Palmer, executive director of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Senior Centers, at 704-817-5474 or executivedirector@cmseniorcenters.org.