Advocates renew call for more space at Amherst senior center

  • People take part in the Amherst senior center’s free bread and produce program at the Bangs Community Center in this 2013 photo. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 4/18/2022 8:22:46 PM
Modified: 4/18/2022 8:21:28 PM

AMHERST — With in-person activities returning and the pandemic possibly subsiding, Amherst senior citizens are renewing their calls to town officials to get more space for the senior center.

“Now that COVID restrictions are lifted and the doors to the senior center are once again unlocked, classes, programs and services can be resumed,” members of the Friends of the Amherst Senior Center wrote in an early April letter to the Town Council. “Yet, we are struggling to find sufficient classroom space for those activities.”

During the Council on Aging meeting last week, Rosemary Kofler, who is a co-leader of the committee, said the letter was a way to make sure the voices of senior citizens are heard and to let officials know that the needs and services can’t be met without adequate space, staff or budget support.

Dennis Vandal, who also serves on the council, said resuming the appeal is important. “We just have to start acting up, that’s really important at this point,” Vandal said.

The letter comes with an attachment showing that the Amherst Senior Center, housed in the Bangs Community Center, has 2,173 square feet of dedicated space, with an additional 5,226 square feet of shared space, for the town’s 5,239 senior citizens That is far less than the 18,550 square feet in Northampton’s senior center, for 5,126 seniors, and the 10,250 square feet at Hadley’s and 20,000 square feet in Belchertown’s.

The Council on Aging has been studying the issue of space needs and observing other communities, including Holyoke, South Hadley, Greenfield and Chicopee, that have built new centers since 2010.

In late 2017, as the Amherst Senior Center was set to mark the 40th anniversary of its move to the Bangs, a long-range planning subcommittee for the Council on Aging sent a letter to town officials requesting that a new building be placed on the 10-year capital project list by the Joint Capital Planning Committee. That letter asked for $50,000 to begin a feasibility study and for the town to acquire two acres on which a 20,000-to-25,000-square-foot building could be built, with 129 free parking spaces.

While the Bangs is centrally located and next to Ann Whalen Apartments and Clark House, where some senior citizens live, most of the parking is in the Boltwood parking garage.

Senior citizens haven’t engaged in much activism on getting a new building since the Town Council and the new form of government commenced in late 2018. The Town Council’s focus has been on four other building projects, including a new elementary school, the Jones Library expansion and renovation, a new Department of Public Works and a fire station for South Amherst. Each of those is on the capital plan.

Senior Center Director Hayley Bolton said the continuing collection of age- and dementia-friendly community surveys shows that many residents are being explicit about lack of space at the Bangs. Bolton said once that survey is complete, the results will be shared.

During the initial period of the pandemic in 2020, the main room for the senior center was refurbished with new carpet and furnishings. Since that time, though, less space is available for exercise and other classes, with the Pole Room having been converted into the display room for the famed Civil War tablets, while the Large Activity Room is used for both congregate meals and set-up for to-go food.

The second floor of the building still can’t be used by seniors. Previously where Big Brothers Big Sisters and Center for New Americans were located, those offices are being renovated into the Community Responders for Equity, Safety and Service department, while the John P. Musante Health Center continues taking up a portion of the basement level.

The Town Council’s Town Services and Outreach Committee has the letter in hand, which invites councilors for tours of the building. In addition to calling for more space to “enhance dignity, support independence, maintain health and strength, and promote the involvement of older adults in the community,” the letter also suggests better staffing and funding.

District 3 Councilor Dorothy Pam, who participated in the Council on Aging meeting, said she understands the concerns and wonders whether any other buildings, or rooms for programs, could be found. In the meantime, Pam said, seniors will have to remain vocal.

“It’s really important you keep the pressure up,” Pam said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.

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