The Astoria Senior Center is in sad shape.
The roof is leaking.
The basement is dark, cold and packed with random items collected over time.
The electricity is unpredictable and the heating is inconsistent.
But with an abundance of updates needed for the building on 11th and Exchange streets, and not enough city dollars, the Senior Center’s repairs have been on the back burner.
That is, until now.
“This building was a furniture store, and before that it was a market. Now it’s a senior center and in terms of energy efficiency and electrical efficiency, the building has a lot of problems,” City Manager Paul Benoit said. “We identified a Community Development Block Grant program and out of $4.6 million distributed statewide, our senior center just received almost 32 percent of that total.”
The Astoria Senior Center, through the city of Astoria, has accepted a state grant worth $1.5 million with no match required, for structural and permanent renovations. And according to anyone who knows the building, that money is desperately needed.
“Let’s put it this way – this building technically is a derelict-type building,” Senior Center President Wesley Ginther said. “I don’t care if it looks great, it’s still a derelict-type building. Parts of it have to be upgraded and modernized structurally, so the grant is going to be used for that.”
The building will be renovated, ridding it of the asbestos-contaminated flooring on the main level. The basement will be made into a usable space for the senior meals program, Loaves and Fishes. The windows, roof and heating system will all be replaced.
An elevator providing access to the basement will also be installed.
“Having a space for senior meals down here,” Larry Miller, the Senior Center manager said, “is going to be a real service for the seniors.
“The basement doesn’t look like much now. But come back in a year, and it’s going to be wonderful.”
Miller became the manager in June, the only paid staff member at the center. He works 40 hours a week, just like any other person, he said.
“I’ll tell you what, I am really excited about this,” he said. “I never went through anything like this, but I have been looking at what we could possibly do, and I’ll tell ya, it’s really exciting what we’re going to be able to do. I looked at the City Hall and saw what they were able to do with $1.8 million over there and they have a beautiful building. Our grant is $1.5 million and in my mind, I’ve got lots of plans!”
The basement restoration will also include the installation of windows on the above-ground side.
“If we have a Christmas party or something, we have to hire a caterer to come in,” senior Jean Myers said. “So it will be nice if we had our own kitchen. We could use it for so many things.”
The grant received for the Astoria Senior Center is not unique, in that it follows the pattern the city of Astoria has been pushing for a while: save the buildings the city has, rather than build new.
For example, the $1.5 million seismic grant for the Public Safety Building was received in 2011 with no match required. Those updates have just been completed and the building was reopened last month. City Hall was reopened last April.
“Our public facilities really need a lot of care and attention,” Benoit said. “Over time, I don’t want to say they have been neglected, but they haven’t been spruced up. With City Hall and the remodel we completed last year, the roof was in sorry shape, and the electrical and heating systems needed work. Now, it’s a building that’s very functional and very energy efficient. It’s been a good investment. It’s a building the community can be proud of and I want that for the Senior Center, too.”
Benoit credited Mayor Willis Van Dusen for his focus and enthusiasm for the project and for the seniors.
“This is exciting and an absolute benefit for the group. There are 550 members right now for the senior center. It’s theirs,” Ginther said. “Yes, the city owns it and the city leases it to us, but this is the space for the seniors and this will be a big plus for them.”
Miller says approximately 50 seniors per day utilize the facility. More will come, he believes, when the building is modernized.
The seniors rent the city-owned building for $1 per year. The city splits the costs on utilities. Last year, Astoria leaders tried to give the seniors the building but that offer was declined because neither party has the money to make the necessary improvements.
The grant satisfies both parties and each will do their share.
The seniors, who sell crafts out of the center to the public to raise funds, such as recycled greeting cards and handmade blankets, placemats and other things, will be upping the fundraising efforts in order to purchase new furniture when the space is fully renovated.
Other fundraising events will also be held.
“Seniors are so important to a community. So much knowledge, so much history, so much to give,” Miller said. “You can’t ignore seniors and I hope the community – I think the community – will step up and help them.”
Volunteer Sharon Matzen said the renovations will likely begin in September. While the building is cleared out so that can take place, the seniors will have to be relocated.
“They’re thinking about a couple of places. One spot they’re thinking of is the old Lum’s car lot on 16th,” Matzen said. “It’s going to be a major move to get all of this stuff out of here. The place has to be totally stripped down.”
Miller said the building will likely be closed and under renovation until February.
But until that time, the city and the seniors will work together to plan what will happen with the building. The seniors will work on a “wish list,” Ginther said.
“The board is meeting in a couple weeks and they are going to form a committee for people to work with the city on the building,” Ginther said. “Because technically we didn’t receive the grant. The city received the grant for the building for our purposes.”
The senior center is open Monday through Saturday and offers line dancing, pool, crafts, Bingo, bus trips to Fred Meyer, Safeway and Walmart, Mah Jong, exercise and more.
On Fridays, a cost-free tax preparation is offered to the community at 8:30 a.m.
“I’m glad the grant process is over with,” Matzen said. “We were all worried about it and I’m glad we got it. Now, we can get to work.”
This story originally appeared in Daily Astorian.