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HAMPDEN — Walking down the hallway at the Hampden Senior Center, boxes with canned goods sit on metal rolling carts pushed against the wall, creating a makeshift food pantry. The offices and reception area are cluttered with program materials and boxes. The custodian’s closet is often used as an “auxiliary room” — mops and buckets are rolled out into the hallway so residents can receive manicures and foot care next to the utility sink and electrical panels.

At a March 21 public forum, about 150 Hampden residents were presented with a possible solution to the lack of storage and overcrowding at the Senior Center, which has led to congested hallways, canceled programs and the center having to turn people away. The plan is the result of 18 months of meetings by the Senior Center Building Committee, which consists of residents, with Council on Aging Director Rebecca Moriarty and Board of Selectmen Chair John Flyn serving as non-voting members. The committee contracted with EDM Studio and Lifespan Design Studio, which specializes in facilities that cater to older people, to draft plans for a renovated and expanded center.

Moriarty began the presentation with information about the building and the people it serves.

According to the 2020 federal census, 1,849 of the town’s 4,496 residents, 37%, are over age 60, and that percentage is expected to grow as the large Baby Boom generation continues to age. “By 2034, we project that older adults will outnumber children for the first time in U.S. history,” the Census Bureau said in a 2018 report.

The Senior Center, built in 1999, has 6,815 square feet of usable space, with 440 square feet of storage. There is a library, crafts room, billiards room, kitchen and offices. The great room is the largest space, and when it is divided in two, the center has four rooms in which programs can be run.

The center offers an array of programs in the tight quarters, including tai chi, line dancing, movie screenings, billiard leagues, craft classes, cards and board games, blood pressure checks and other health screenings. One popular program is the Memory Café, in which people with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia socialize and participate in activities. Hampden’s program is one of only eight offered in the Pioneer Valley.

While older people are the primary users of the Senior Center, Moriarty pointed out that at least 10.9% of those that come to the center are under age 65. This is because it is the only social services agency in Hampden. People of all ages go to the center to seek help with programs, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, food distribution and Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, also known as fuel assistance.

There are several limitations to the space that have been identified by the Senior Center Building Committee. These include a limited flexibility in use the existing activity rooms, no storage for the staging, tables and chairs when not in use, and use of the library for programs, rather than as a relaxing reading area. The restrooms are not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, with insufficient space for companions for those who need assistance. Classes are also cancelled due to a lack of space or a need to use the great room for special luncheons and events, such as this year’s St. Patrick’s Day, when the room was at maximum capacity of 150 people.

With more space, Moriarty said the center could create mental health programs, designated exercise space, intergenerational community programs, programs for recreation, socialization or education. The center could also offer privacy for people seeking medical screening, veteran resource information, support groups and care for feet, hands and massages, “so you’re not next to a mop bucket,” Moriarty said.

New design

Senior Center Building Committee Chair Don Collins explained that after a bidding process, which ended in the committee choosing EDM Studio as the design firm, four potential designs were considered, and eventually narrowed it to two. The best of both designs were combined into the current proposal.

The proposed design is 12,571 square feet with 770 square feet dedicated to storage. The front of the building would be extended toward the street to create space for offices and rooms for confidential and personal services. The rear of the building would be expanded significantly.

The existing craft and billiards rooms would be combined into a multipurpose room, with a second, small multipurpose/conference room further down the hallway. An open library and lounge area would be to the left of the conference room on the south side of the buildings. The great room and kitchen would remain in their existing layout, with adjacent rooms dedicated to crafts and billiards in the new section of the building.

The lobby would have seating, with room for a café. Moriarty said a café and small boutique area could generate revenue for the Senior Center.

The design calls for four restrooms in the center of the building, with widened hallways and access to men’s and women’s facilities on either side. Each of them would contain one or two personal stalls or urinals and a companion stall for caregiver assistance. Two of the building’s three other small restrooms would also be designed for companions.

Chris Wante, the project architect with EDM Studio, explained that there would be “no dead-end corridors” or long hallways.

A sprinkler system would need to be added to the building, as it is required for public structures larger than 7,000 square feet. A water tank and pump for the system would be in a small structure on the site. The building would receive a new roof and Wante said the parking lot would be “freshened up.”
The goal of the new design was to make it feel “as familiar as possible” and “as if it were always there,” Wante said.

Cost

Wante presented a breakdown of the costs associated with the building’s expansion and renovation. Construction would account for the lion’s share at $4.99 million. Furniture, fixtures and equipment would add about $300,000, and fees and other expenses would cost $690,000. A contingency of $570,000 was added to the cost of the project to cover unforeseen expenses, bringing the total to $6.55 million.

Moriarty pointed out that the Senior Center was supported by just 1% of the town’s annual operating budget for several years. That amount was increased to 2% in fiscal year 2024.

Residents had the opportunity to ask questions after the presentation. One person asked if the septic system would have to be expanded. Gary Weiner, a member of the committee, explained that a Title 5 study had been performed and the existing system was confirmed to be in “very good” condition with “more than adequate” capacity to handle the additional people that are expected to use the facility in the future.

Ted Zebert commented on the placement of the new craft room blocking windows on the south side of the great room, which stretches the width of the existing building. Committee Chair Don Collins acknowledged that the windows would be blocked, but said skylights were being considered for natural lighting.

Connie Witt asked if the addition could be added to the north face of the building, so the room could keep the sunlight from the south. Wante explained that the project was designed to not encroach on the parking lot, as more people are expected to use the building in the coming years and parking would be needed. Weiner noted that up to 25 new spaces could be added to the lot if the need arises.
When asked by Witt, Moriarty said 54% of the Senior Center’s patrons are from Hampden. Witt wanted to know if the other towns whose people use the center could share in the cost of the project, but it was explained that all of the area senior centers are open to people from any town and Hampden residents attend programs in other towns, as well.

Jim Smith asked if the newly opened senior center in Wilbraham was expected to draw people away from the Hampden center. Collins said that only less than 10% of the people who use the Hampden Senior Center are Wilbraham residents. Further, he said people attend the center for the programs it offers and will likely continue to do so.

When asked about installing solar panels on the roof, committee member John Matthews explained that the town’s bylaws do not allow for rooftop solar on “commercial” buildings.

One resident was adamant that the plan devoted too much space to the restrooms and hallways. She commented that she’s never seen a line for the restroom. Meanwhile, she was hoping for a space for people to play cards and board games.

Wante explained that, while the plans exceed code requirements, reducing the restrooms to the minimum required by law would only create an additional 100 square feet of space. Collins added that the center must offer restroom facilities that can handle larger events, as well as everyday use. Weiner noted that the building is used as a warming center for large group of people in extreme weather.

Lisa Sternberg was glad to see the extra space devoted to companion bathrooms and said that as more people use the memory café, the need for companion restrooms will grow.

The hallways in the design were widened to accommodate wheelchair users and people passing in the hall, Collins said.

Moriarty said the smaller multipurpose room could be used for cards and board games. Even with the library being used for its intended purpose, rather than programs, she said the center was gaining more activity space.

Wante reminded those present that the design must work for today’s needs and the needs of the town in 30 to 50 years. Designing with an eye toward the future would limit the likelihood that there would need to be another expansion in 20 years, he said.

A second public forum will be conducted in April and Collins said feedback from residents will be incorporated in the plans.

Voters will have their say on the proposal at the Town Meeting in May. The committee also anticipates a debt override may be needed to finance the project, triggering a ballot question. If approved, construction could be expected to begin in late 2024 and be finished by the end of 2025.

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