Seniors voice mixed feelings about relocating center

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury-area seniors have mixed feelings about the potential relocation of the Russ Sholes Senior Center from the municipal building at 94 Main St. to a proposed new recreation facility off Creek Road. Some of the center’s 12-14 “regulars” said they would have no problem making such a transition, while others said they’d prefer to see the facility remain downtown where they could continue to run errands at nearby stores and banks.

The Russ Sholes Senior Center is located in the lower level of the Middlebury municipal gym. Local voters on March 4 will weigh in on a proposal to demolish the municipal building and gym and replace it with a public park owned by Middlebury College.

In exchange for that property and another town-owned parcel at 6 Cross St., the college would underwrite $4.5 million of the estimated $6.5 million construction costs of a new municipal building at 77 Main St. and a new recreation facility off Creek Road. The college would also put $1 million toward removal of the 94 Main structures.

The roughly 2.5-acre site off Creek Road is owned by the UD-3 school district, which governs Middlebury Union Middle and High schools. UD-3 voters on Tuesday voted 306-118 to execute a lease with the town of Middlebury for use of the Creek Road land (see related story, Page 1A) for a recreation facility.

A cleared 94 Main St. would mean that Middlebury seniors would relocate to a “multi-purpose room” at the proposed new, 11,500-square-foot rec. center. The Addison Independent reached out to several of the Russ Sholes regulars to get their views on the potential move.

There was a time when the Ross Sholes Senior Center was a popular destination for a core group of more than a dozen seniors, according to Mary West, assistant nutrition director and healthy aging coordinator for the Champlain Valley Agency on Aging (CVAA). The CVAA organizes community meals, exercise, transportation, counseling and a variety of other programs for senior citizens in Middlebury and throughout the Champlain Valley.

West recalled bi-weekly potluck meals and CVAA-sponsored lunches each Tuesday and Friday at the Russ Sholes space. The location also attracted a group affectionately known as the “Sew-Sew Ladies” who would work on crafts like aprons and little mice stuffed with catnip.

But unfortunately, program attendance began to drop five or six years ago as the Russ Sholes stalwarts passed away. West noted the most devoted members were in their upper-80s and low-90s.

“The potlucks became a hardship for a lot of people,” West said, noting the effort required to make, and carry, large dishes of food.

When longtime Russ Sholes President Ted Pilon died around three years ago, no one stepped in to fill that void, according to West. The organization became defunct, though its bank account continues to survive.

“No one was interested in doing it,” West said of the leadership role.

The CVAA had been offering community meals at the Russ Sholes site every Tuesday and Friday. But the organization recently cut its Friday lunch service at the location due to a lack of demand, according to West. The Tuesday meals continue to hold their own, attracting 12 to 14 seniors. And the lunch held there on the third Tuesday of each month features a speaker or entertainer (such as a musical group), and typically draws more than 30 seniors, West said.

Meanwhile, seniors have had little impetus to build upon the center’s activities, West said. She explained the Lodge at Otter Creek and Eastview at Middlebury retirement communities have on-site programming for their senior residents. Many seniors who are not associated with The Lodge or Eastview are looking for a more varied outing than a sit-down meal at the Russ Sholes center — a spot that has its physical shortcomings, according to West.

“A lot of it has to do with the center itself,” West said. “It’s fairly depressing.”

West stressed the town of Middlebury should be commended for providing the space. But it has limited natural light and can be a challenge for seniors to enter. She referred specifically to snow that can pile up in front of the handicap parking spaces near the awning-covered entrance of the center. And that entrance features a slight decline en route to the doorway — a grade that can be problematic for seniors who are unsteady on their feet and who use walkers, according to West.

MAKING SIDE TRIPS

Tracy Corbett is the CVAA’s community meals coordinator at the Russ Sholes site. She said she’s noticed a slight uptick in attendance recently and hopes to eventually restore a Friday meal. She believes seniors are combining their lunch visits with chores in downtown Middlebury. It’s not unusual to see attendees make side trips to the Otter Creek Bakery, Sama’s, the Ben Franklin store or the town clerk’s office to pay bills, Corbett said.

North Pleasant Street resident Sam Vogel is among those who combine errands before or after the Tuesday luncheons.

“Once I’m downtown, I can take care of other things,” Vogel said. “I’m 94 and can’t do much walking.”

Corbett and West acknowledged that most all of the Tuesday lunch attendees either drive, are driven, or are brought in via public transportation.

“None of them walk to the senior center,” West said.

Corbett agreed with West that the Russ Sholes space is appreciated, but not ideal for the population it is serving.

“It is often overheated and needs upgrading,” Corbett said.

She noted that on some cold mornings she has to ironically turn on the air conditioner to cool down the Russ Sholes meeting area that gets extremely hot due to the building’s antiquated heating system.

Still, the dozen or so lunch program regulars last month discussed the current 94 Main St. site and the prospect of having to relocate to a new building off Creek Road, according to Corbett. She said the consensus opinion was that they would like the lunches to remain in an area convenient to downtown shopping.

Resident Eleanor Coeby has been a regular participant at the Tuesday meals.

“I would like to see the senior center stay where it is, or in a new building where it is,” Coeby said, noting the advantages of local stores and banks. “I would like to see it stay in a building central in the town.”

Resident Louise Mosher has been a regular participant in the weekly lunch program at the Russ Sholes center. She said she has been satisfied with the program and called the space “clean and neat.”

“I’m sure if there’s a new (center) on Creek Road, that one would be nice, too,” Mosher said.

Since she comes by car, Mosher said she would not be inconvenienced by a new senior center on Creek Road.

This past Tuesday saw Shirley Warner working away at a puzzle as she waited for CVAA officials to serve a meatloaf lunch. Warner drives in from East Middlebury, so she said a move to Creek Road would make for a shorter drive. But Warner is opposed to the current project, saying it might limit expansion opportunities at the Ilsley Library (next to 77 Main St.). She also worries about the expense of such a project and its potential impact on downtown parking.

“How much farther do they think we can dig into our pockets and pay for these things?” she said.

Resident Ken Burton was also among the diners at the Russ Sholes center on Tuesday. He attended classes at the municipal building, which originally served as Middlebury High School before a 1954 fire. Still, he said it would not hurt his feelings to see the building be taken down for a park, which he said would better expose some of the historic homes on South Main Street.

That said, Burton would prefer to see the new municipal offices put into the Middlebury College-owned Painter House in Court Square. And he said he’d prefer to see the new recreation facility built where it was originally envisioned — on a portion of the town recreation park near Mary Hogan Elementary School.

OTHER SENIOR CENTERS

With Vermont’s population continuing to get older, senior centers are becoming more sophisticated and are getting an increasing amount of public support, according to CVAA’s West. She said senior centers in St. Albans, Winooski, Burlington and Charlotte are all receiving some public funding from their host communities. Charlotte budgeted $72,250 for its senior center last year, according to the community’s most recent town report. The center was established in 2002 thanks to a donation from Walter B. Irish.

“It is active, vibrant and full of volunteers from their early 60s, up,” West said of the Charlotte center.

Middlebury seniors also have access to a nice range of local services — albeit not in one central location, West noted. In addition to the Tuesday meals at Russ Sholes, the CVAA offers community lunches at the Middlebury Veterans of Foreign Wars headquarters on Exchange Street the first Friday of each month. That VFW meal can attract upwards of 150 seniors, according to Corbett.

Along with meals, the CVAA offers a variety of exercise sessions and other services in locations throughout the county. In Middlebury, the CVAA offers regular Tai Chi, “Living Strong” and Bone Builders classes at Middlebury Fitness. Elderly Services Inc. off Exchange Street in Middlebury also offers a variety of programs for seniors.

“It’s the social interaction,” West said. “It helps with depression.”

She added Middlebury residents are fortunate to have many cultural, social, recreational and entertainment diversions within the community, thanks to the proximity of Middlebury College and various local offerings.

“In Middlebury, people have other things to do to meet that socialization need,” she said.

West is intrigued by the prospect of a new senior center on Creek Road. But she also has concerns about such a potential relocation. While she doesn’t believe the change of address would matter too much, she wonders whether the seniors’ space in the Creek Road facility’s multi-purpose room would be dedicated to them at specific times of the day; West does not believe the seniors would use the center much during evenings.

She also wonders whether seniors would receive help setting up and dismantling tables within the shared space, as they are unable to perform those tasks themselves.

Corbett is concerned about whether the multi-purpose room’s 530 square feet — which is roughly half the size of the Russ Sholes space — would be enough to meet the seniors’ space needs.

“It’s hard to seat more than 30 people with the space we have now,” Corbett said. “And our elderly population is growing.”

Chris Huston, project architect with Bread Loaf Corp., said the multi-purpose room would include access to a kitchen and storage area. He said seniors would also have access to a 530-square-foot “quiet room” within the recreation center, as well as the main multi-sport gym.

“Effectively, all of the building is available for their use,” Huston said.

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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