The City of Montpelier asked what seniors want for services at the Montpelier Senior Activity Center (MSAC) on Barre Street. The response was clear: They want an engaged, fulltime director to lead and manage the facility with the objective of bringing it back to the vital and active community center it had become before the disruption of the COVID-19 Pandemic in March 2020.
Late morning and early evening town halls were held at the center on Thursday, August 18, moderated by MSAC member Whitney Dell. Combined the two meetings were attended by more than 50 people with at least 30 more participating remotely. Virtual access to both meetings was provided by ORCA Media
Following the resignation of MSAC Director Sarah Lipton earlier this summer, Recreation Department Director Arne McMullen has been assigned to serve in her place, in addition to his responsibilities as director of the Montpelier’s Recreation Department.
According to an assessment prepared by the city prior to the meetings, the effect of the COVID-19 Pandemic on MSAC has been a combination of a decline in membership from 1,189 in 2019 to 757 in 2023 and operating deficits in the neighborhood of $100,000 in two of the most recent fiscal years: FY22 and FY23. Revenue from membership dues dropped from a high of approximately $34,000 in FY19 to a low of just over $11,000 in FY20, but has since seen a modest recovery.
Programs have also been disrupted by the relocation of several city staff to MSAC due to the flooding of City Hall in July. Assistant City Manager Kelly Murphy told attendees at both meetings that there will be additional opportunities for input about the future of MSAC beyond the initial town hall meetings.
Nancy Schulz, MSAC member, program instructor, and consistent volunteer with the Trash Tramps, spoke first at the morning meeting. She outlined her priority concerns about the current administrative plans for MSAC with an emphasis on restoring the quality of the pre-COVID programs and the engagement of the community’s seniors.
In addition to restoring a fulltime director, Schulz said her priorities include revitalization of MSAC as an apparently exceptional community hub of educational opportunities, regular community meals, music, scheduled motorcoach and van trips to varied destinations and events, physical training and “bone builders” workshops, yoga, and foreign languages among other courses.
Schulz’s points were repeatedly and consistently supported by subsequent speakers during both sessions. Other former programs include swimming, dancing, guest lectures, and a repair shop.
Sarah Franklin, a retired teacher said, “A lot of us are in-migrants from other places. One lack that I have is a knowledge of Vermont history.” She would appreciate Vermont history courses and a course about Vermont novelists.
Rachel Desiletts referenced the long term concerns for seniors. “Unless you have a fair amount of money, your options are limited,” she said, noting the high cost of assisted living facilities. Referring to housing shortages she is concerned that city officials she has spoken with “do not anticipate taking on providing additional senior housing.”
At the evening session, one woman commented, “This is our clubhouse! Our generation does not really understand that we’re old!” She stressed the importance of outreach to all seniors in the community. “We’re not really reaching all of the people who would have a great time here,” she said.
A distinctly different vision about the scope of outreach came during the evening session, when Peter Kelman proposed a different perspective about “those outside this building.”
“I propose that we begin by trying mightily not to cling to the past, to all of those cherished memories, many of which I’ve heard tonight . . . but rather we focus our attention on the wide range of what Montpelier seniors need the most,” Kelman said. “I’ve heard a lot of talk from all the white faces here, but I think we need to realize there are people who are disabled, people who are of other races, people who don’t feel comfortable here and have never felt comfortable here. We do need to reach outside of this building. We need to do a needs assessment of the very wide range of seniors who live in this city.”
Kelman also pointed out the importance of collaborating with other organizations, “We don’t need to do everything ourselves,” he concluded, suggesting, for instance, that managing instructors and classes is something the Recreation Department is already doing and that the FEAST program is one among several organizations providing food.
At the conclusion of both meetings Director Arne McMullen spoke to the concerns about consolidating the administration of both MSAC and the Recreation Department. Noting his credentials (masters degree in physical education and recreation management) and 30 years working for the city, he noted that MSAC was administered by the Recreation Department for many years in the past and that such a management structure is successfully in place in other cities.
The city has posted a detailed report on the MSAC budget and revenue history online and videos of both meetings is available here.